The weekends usually mean a time to catch up on sleep and relax before the next week ahead. For nearly 1,500 cadets, staff and faculty at the U.S. Military Academy, the weekend for them meant an opportunity to participate in the grueling Norwegian Foot March over the course of several days on April 3, 11 and 25.
The Norwegian Foot March, also known as Marsjmerket, is an armed forces skill badge earned after completing an 18.6-mile foot march while carrying a 25-pound rucksack in under 4.5 hours. The march was first held during World War I in 1915 to test the strength and endurance of the Norwegian military while exposing them to conditions they could expect in combat. To this day, the foot march remains a test of endurance and allows U.S. Soldiers an opportunity to earn a foreign badge.
Class of 2021 Cadet Nicholas Tavassoli, 1st Regiment training noncommissioned officer, saw this event as a great opportunity for his regiment after his roommate alerted him to the waived requirement due to the pandemic.
“Because of COVID, the Norwegians were waiving the requirement to have a Norwegian officiator present to get the badge,” Tavassoli said. “I thought this would be a cool thing to do for the regiment and have about 200 people within the Reg interested because I know how to plan something like this.”
After sending out an initial email to see if there was interest in participating in this event, to Tavassoli’s surprise, over 2,000 people from across the West Point community signed up.
“People from Keller, USMA Band, the USMA Preparatory School and Military Police contacted me,” Tavassoli said. “We only had until August until this requirement is no longer waived so this is our only shot … I wanted to put it on for as many people as possible.”
Tavassoli and his executive officer, Class of 2023 Cadet Tamar Dewilde, began planning the event in January. Since the event was no longer just a regiment-level event but now grew into an official West Point event, Tavassoli and Dewilde had the immense task ahead to execute the foot march properly while mitigating risks to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure.
“In order to mitigate risks, we had each person wear a physical training belt on their person and on their ruck so they would be visible (at night),” Dewilde said. “We also had each iteration spaced out with only 10 cadets stepping off every minute so there was spacing for COVID. We also had combat lifesaver qualified cadets in one of three Humvees that were roaming the event in case there were any medical issues.”
Although there was a high level of interest, Tavassoli and Dewilde had to figure out how to conduct the event while ensuring everyone received the opportunity safely. They also had to get several approvals through the Brigade Tactical Department since cadets would be missing TAPS.
“I asked how many people I can realistically get through (to mitigate) COVID and (the Brigade Tactical Department) told me 500,” Tavassoli said. “I said that’s not enough, so I said I am going to do it on these three weekends and open it up to everyone around post.”
Tavassoli was able to get about 1,500 staff, faculty and cadets through the course by splitting up the competition throughout three weekends in April to implement COVID mitigation measures. Over 1,200 participants qualified to earn the badge with a pass rate of 86%.
“In the big Army, its only a 70% pass rate so we were 16% higher than the Army,” Tavassoli said. “The cool thing is the Norwegians loved this so much because this is the biggest Norwegian Foot March they’ve ever done. It’s on par with Operation Toy Drop at Fort Bragg, which is currently the largest foreign badge producing event in the Army.”
The route, which also had to be validated and approved through the Norwegian Embassy, took place around the West Point installation. Participants started at The Plain and rucked six miles around post hitting points such as Buffalo Soldier Field, Michie Stadium and Washington Road for a total of three times.
“Basically the whole post is six miles and they had to do that three times in four-and-a-half hours for males and four hours and 50 minutes for females,” Tavassoli said.
Several staff and faculty also joined in on the march to test their mettle and encourage cadets along the way. Col. Scott Virgil, director of the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic at West Point, chose to participate in the foot march to support his teammates and the cadets.
“It was pretty impressive what the cadets were doing on their own voluntary time just getting after it through this crucible like event,” Virgil said. “I’ve done my fair share of races and you can take for granted how smooth an event goes until you see something go wrong. The amount of planning, coordination and logistics that was done by Cadet Nick Tavassoli and his team was impressive.”
Virgil, no stranger to foot march challenges, rucked all three days of the event and came in as one of the fastest times for males.
“That was not the plan going in, but I had folks from my team across all three days so I decided to do the first one,” Virgil said. “I had a good time, loved seeing the cadets out there and asked if I could do the next one so I jumped in on the third one also.”
The foot march took place at night to replicate the same conditions set by the Norwegian military during WWI. A total of 50 groups of 10 people stepped off every minute each night starting at 11 p.m. and continued until about 5 a.m.
“The requirement for the Norwegians is that it has to be done before beginning the nautical twilight which is like 5 o’clock for the month of May,” Tavassoli said. “The history of it during WWI, they had to test the Norwegian Soldiers to see if they can ruck a super-long distance overnight and be combat effective the next day. So theoretically, you are supposed to continue with a regular work day.”
For Class of 2024 Cadet Carlos Gutierrez, he not only wanted to challenge himself, but he also wanted to honor his friend who lost his battle to cancer just a few days prior.
“That was definitely a big motivating factor for me because I took it pretty hard,” Gutierrez said. “I wasn’t able to go home and be there for the funeral and that was hard for me, so I did it for him.”
Class of 2023 Cadet Joshua Reece, a prior service Infantry Soldier in the National Guard, also felt it was important to pay homage to a WWII veteran while he competed for the badge. He conducted the foot march in honor of Pvt. Walter B. Straka, Minnesota’s lone survivor of the Bataan Death March.
“I chose to honor him because he and I belonged to the same unit, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment when it used to be the 194th Tank Battalion/Provisional Tank Group of the Minnesota National Guard,” Reece said. “I carried his pictures throughout the night while I pursued earning the title of fastest finish time for the ruck because it felt to be the best way to honor him while reflecting upon the deathly pace that his captors pushed him during the march.”
With a goal in mind, Reece did end up earning the title of fastest time overall with a final finish time of two hours and 46 minutes.
For Class of 2021 Cadet Jennifer Gervais, she decided to sign up anyway, although she had just completed Sandhurst with her company team the week prior.
“I signed up for the last slot because I didn’t want to do it before the Sandhurst Competition,” Gervais said. “I was 125th on the waiting list because there was such a high demand but a lot of people dropped out and by some miracle I got a slot.”
Although Gervais had just come off the heels of the Sandhurst Competition, she ended up earning the title for fastest female during the march.
“At first, I was a little nervous because I had just done the Sandhurst Competition the week before so I was just like, ‘oh my goodness, I am about to die,’” Gervais said. “Honestly it was really fun because there were these other two guys who kept passing us and then we would pass them so it was a little fun race.”
Class of 2021 Cadet Marie Docken had never rucked more than 12 miles before, so she decided to challenge herself and take advantage of the opportunity. Although she didn’t know what to expect, she ended up with one of the fastest overall times for females.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea what sort of times were pretty feasible. By the end it was just about ‘the faster I could go, the faster I could go to sleep,’” Docken said. “Literally, just seeing how much I could do just because it’s something I don’t get to do very often, so I just wanted to do my best in it and see how far I could push myself.”
While the badges and certificates await signature and approval at the Norwegian Embassy, Tavassoli and DeWilde have already begun planning the next Norwegian Foot March for West Point.
“I am hoping next year we can make this bigger,” Tavassoli said. “I learned a lot just watching and getting the AAR comments. We went back after each time and revised the plan so on the last day we fixed the plan and it was perfect. I had a great time planning and learning. Getting this experience as a cadet is pretty invaluable.”