Vicenza, ITALY (May 15, 2018) - On April 30, 2009, retired U.S. Army Ranger Rick Tscherne went for a walk along the shores of Lake Garda. Forty miles later he stopped in the town of Torbole with an idea.
The inspiration for Tscherne's 40-mile trek was partly a chance to reflect on what happened on the shores of the lake 64 years earlier: the Army's 10th Mountain Division was chasing the last determined remnants of the German Army in Italy. The three-day battle appeared over on April 30, 1945, a day after a signed armistice ended the war in Italy. But without warning, a final German artillery round found its deadly mark and killed Col. William Darby and Sgt. Major John Evans on Torbole's waterfront.
"It was back in 2008 is when I really came up with this 40-mile idea. After hearing about all these other walks and marches the Army sponsors and supports back in the states and seeing it is exactly 40 miles from one end of the lake to the other, I thought there might be interest. I mailed about a half dozen letters along with some maps to all the major unit commanders in Vicenza about my idea, but I never got one single reply back from any of them, not one," recalled Tscherne.
With no apparent interest by Army officials, Tscherne dropped the idea.
Then inspiration came from a different direction.
With countless articles published about how long walks and hikes are good for troubled souls - and finding himself at odds with his wife and daughter - Tscherne went for that long walk in 2009.
"My wife and I weren't talking to each other. And then one day very early in the morning, I got up and decided to go for a walk along the lake shoreline, feeling sorry for myself. I was not planning on walking the entire lake, just a few miles. And so I took it a town at a time and telling myself, 'Okay, the next town I'll turn around and catch a bus ride back home.' Before I knew it, I was in Malcesine. And that's where I decided, 'Oh what the hell, may as well go the rest of the way to Torbole', and so I did."
Tscherne had a problem when he arrived at Garda's northern most town. It was late and the busses weren't running. He had no way home.
"I felt good. I burned out all my anger and didn't feel depressed anymore and went to the bus stop in Torbole to catch a ride back home. But I discovered I missed the last bus home, and there were no ferry boats. I tried calling some of my friends to come pick me up but none of them were home. I checked my wallet and realized I didn't have enough money for a taxi neither (sic). And so I had no choice but to call my wife," Tscherne said.
It was during that late-night ride home when Tscherne and his wife began talking again and overcame their differences.
"I give credit to my wife and my daughter, too, for inspiring me to walk these 40 miles which I had no intention of ever doing, but I did," he said.
From then on, Tscherne would start off on a 40-mile walk each April 30. With each year, he would write to Army leaders in the area inviting them to bring their Soldiers to join him. He never received a response. But something happened in 2012.
"A pair of 173rd Airborne Ranger NCOs contacted me in wanting to walk it. I invited them out to the lake for a weekend, put them up in my house, drove them to the start point and picked them up at the finish point. After them, I began exchanging some emails with a local historian, Ben Appleby, who said he found out what I was doing and asked if I wanted company the next time I do it. I said 'sure' but I doubted he would come with me the following year. But he did and he has been doing it ever since, and that's how we became friends," said Tscherne.
Staff sergeants Ryan Johnson and Adam Fisk from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne "Recon Platoon," became the first active-duty Soldiers to complete the 40-miler in 2012. Appleby, vice president of an association focused on the city of Torbole's history, joined Tscherne in 2013 and has become the Darby Challenge organizer. He helps Tscherne increase the awareness of the annual challenge and the story behind it with the local Italian community.
Tscherne made the trek each year with more Soldiers joining, thanks to word-of-mouth. But in 2016, Tscherne stopped walking. His doctor warned the then 62-year-old of permanent damage to his legs. More important, he felt the work that inspired him years earlier was finished.
"In addition to the Darby Challenge, I put together a committee that I nicknamed 'the monument men committee' to raise money for a memorial monument to remember 25 Soldiers of 10th Mountain Division who drowned on Lake Garda April 30, 1945, when their amphibious craft sank. On April 30, 2016, my last time walking it, was when their memorial monument was unveiled and dedicated to them there at Torbole," he said.
"If you've never experienced Italy bureaucracy, trying to get something like this done in a short space of time for a specific date it pretty hairy. I think we got the final stamps for approval on the Friday before the Sunday march, which is pretty stressful. We are lucky the Torbole city council is very supportive of the challenge and they did everything as fast as possible," recalled Appleby.
This year, more than 350 Soldiers, airmen from nearby Aviano Air Force Base, and veterans accepted the challenge and left Lake Garda's southernmost town of Peschiera del Garda at 6 a.m. and headed north to Torbole. It was the challenge's largest group, topping last year's field of marchers and runners by 150.
In the group were two returning Soldiers who attempted the challenge last year but didn't make it.
"After last year, we decided to do it right this year. We brought boots and everything. We decided slow and steady wins the race because last year we tried running and failed," said Spc. Oscar Salinas in a video blog he posted to You Tube.
One other lesson was pointed out as they passed the 18-mile-mark. They weren't going to stop and rest.
"Last year we just had to stop because everybody was hurting, cramping and stuff. We took a 15-minute break and everybody cramped. It was a horrible idea - worse idea ever - like I was dying on the ground. Right here [mile marker 18] is where we died and our hopes and dreams got crushed," remembered Salinas.
At 6 p.m., the finish line marked by two restored Army jeeps and a group of World War II reenactors closes. In a short solemn ceremony, taps are played and church bells ring 25 times for each Solider drowned in the lost amphibious vehicle crossing. For the third consecutive year, prizes were awarded to the three fastest finishers. This year, Staff Sgt. Benjamin Mansfield, 2nd Bn., 503rd Infantry Regiment, set a new record of five hours, 55 minutes - beating the previous course record of six hours, 19 minutes set last year by Col. Jeff Worthington, commander of 2nd Signal Brigade in Germany.
For those who make it to the finish line in less than 12 hours, the prize is a Darby 40-Mile challenge coin and a great sense of accomplishment. Those go a long way to soothe aching joints, irritating blisters and chaffed thighs. For those too tired, sore or injured to finish, chartered participant buses, vans and fellow Soldiers pick them up for the hourlong drive back to Vicenza.
Tscherne accomplished everything he set out to do except for one thing: finding someone to continue organizing the event. During this year's post-challenge ceremonies, Tscherne let everyone know he was looking for someone to take over the event, preferably a military organization. The Challenge has exceeded his expectations.
Appleby is optimistic about the future of the event.
"Rick confirmed he'll be with us in supporting and being involved in the Col. Darby march until the big 75th anniversary in 2020. This year, for the first time, we had contact from Red Cross at both Aviano and Vicenza who confirmed support for next year. I'm already in the process of writing to those that supported us. It looks like now the council of Torbole, seeing the success we achieved, will be stepping up and getting more involved. We'll have to see how this transforms. The good news is every year it is getting safer with the massive project to make a cycling path around the lake," said Appleby.