JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas – On a bitterly cold, desert morning at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, U.S. Army South Soldier, Sgt. Aaron Thomas, a geospatial plans and analysis team leader in the 512th Engineer Detachment, stood nervously on the starting line of the Bataan Memorial Death March on March 19, 2023.
“I knew it was gonna be challenging, and I didn't want to fail,” Thomas said with uncertainty. “But hearing stories about how bad it was for other people, you know, I kind of let that weigh on me. The furthest I had rucked during my training was only 10 miles.”
According to The Bataan Memorial Death March website, the event is a 26.2-mile ruck march to remember the roughly 75,000 U.S. and Filipino service members who became prisoners of war (POW) in the Philippines during World War II and were forced to march approximately 65 miles through the jungle to confinement camps by their Japanese captors.
Thomas held his detachment’s guidon, but a friend suggested he put it in his 35 pound ruck sack. Instead, he chose the challenge of carrying it the distance and listened to the memory of his older brother’s voice telling him not to take the easy route.
“Whatever it is that I’m doing, it’s the memory of my older brother’s voice telling me not to quit that has always been there to get me through the tough times and tough decisions,” he admired.
Thomas, from Las Vegas, New Mexico, is no stranger to long journeys carrying either a mental or physical weight, or both. Though his family members all found various levels of success in life, through determination and resilience he was the first to earn his high school diploma.
Thomas noted that he was held back a grade twice in high school and enrolled in a dual credit program in order to graduate on time, forcing him to attend night classes at a community college just outside of town. This challenging time of his life was compounded when he broke his foot in a skateboarding accident and was forced to use crutches to get around. One night during class, a blizzard rolled in, his phone died and he was unable to call for a ride home.
“I just started walking with my toes exposed out the end of my cast,” recounted Thomas. “The snow was so bad that I couldn’t see the light poles, I fell a couple of times, I had to hop a cattle fence, and I kept thinking I needed to move faster because if I kept shoveling all this snow into my cast, I’m going to get frostbite. It was the worst three miles of my life.”
Thomas said he reminded himself why he was going to school in order to keep motivating him to keep moving forward: to set an example for his younger siblings.
“Walking back through that snow, I was thinking, like, why am I suffering,” he remarked. “But I thought that if I didn’t change something, my little brothers and my little sister were just going to live the same sad story and drop out. I wanted to break that cycle.”
Thomas pushed through the snow that night and moved on to graduate, even achieving an associate's degree and a certificate in welding. His younger siblings moved on to graduate as well, with one of his brothers getting two degrees and becoming a pastor, his other brother joining the U.S. Navy and his sister becoming a sous-chef.
Thomas thought back to that turbulent, stormy night during the cold morning of the Bataan Memorial Death March and was enkindled.
“I thought about how I had already walked through a blizzard, and that was way worse than the morning of the march,” he claimed.
Even with his previous experiences and the training for the march, Thomas said he had doubts and reflected on the few people who doubted his ability to complete the 26.2-mile course. But he looked at the other competitors and listened to the story of the Bataan POWs who marched more than double that amount with a determination to finish.
The event began and Thomas stepped off on the long trek, befriending a fellow Soldier and finding motivation in his age.
“The first several miles were uphill and I walked with a 57 year old Army Lieutenant Colonel who had served 11 years in the Marine Corps before switching to the Army,” he said. “Seeing him out there gave me a lot of inspiration, because if he can do it at his age, I can do it at 33 years old.”
He used that inspiration when fatigue set in around the halfway mark of the course.
“I definitely reached muscle failure a few times, just every muscle wanting to give up,” he revealed. “Being out there alone at times was the biggest challenge though, but I met a lot of cool people along the way. Some stranger even gave me a shot of pickle juice which helped me a lot with cramping.”
Thomas said his favorite part of the event was the views of the mountains, hills and desert, but they were starkly different from the views during his past marches as a civilian. He found more influence from other times he had to carry heavy weight on long marches with dreary city views.
After he earned his welding certificate, he found a welding job in Los Angeles, bought a car and moved out to California. But an unfortunate event led him to seek change.
“I invited my friend to come visit me out in California, and one night I lent him my car,” he remembered. “He parked it on the street during a street sweeping day and it got towed and impounded.”
Thomas said he found himself on a five mile walk everyday to and from work, but this time he carried a heavy load.
“I didn’t have a secure place to keep my tools or welder at the job site, so I put all my tools in a backpack and carried my welder,” he remarked. “It sucked, and it dawned on me that I could be getting paid to do this and have other benefits in the Army. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Thomas said he took inventory of what he was fighting for in his life: a meager wage, a tiny apartment and a job with no benefits. He knew he was cut out for something different and decided to enlist in the Army as a geospatial engineer.
Back on the Bataan Memorial Death March course, as his muscles failed him and his hands swelled, he remembered the contrast between his past and his present. He also remembered he was trying to set an example as a leader for the Soldiers he was leading back at his unit.
“They may not be my little brothers and sisters, but I treat them like they are and I lead by example,” he said with gratification. “I feel like if I can do stuff like the Bataan at 33 years old, it should be a walk in the park for some of these younger Soldiers.”
Thomas ran the last few miles, fighting to the very end. As he approached the finish line, he was surprised to see a couple faces he recognized.
“I was thinking, that old guy over there looks familiar,” he said with a grin. “ It was my dad and then I saw my mom. My dad was still hooked up to his oxygen tank, so I knew his journey to the finish line was probably a lot worse than mine. That moment made me really appreciate the people that I have in my life.”
His dad, Keith Thomas, a disabled Navy veteran whose service was cut short when he was struck by a tractor-trailer, claimed that it was a challenge to make it to the event, and it almost didn't happen because of icy roads.
“We wanted to surprise him and cheer him on, but we had some severe weather come through,” said his dad wearily. “We told him we wanted to come down there but because of the weather, things had changed. He had no idea we were going to be there, and we were in the perfect spot as he was coming around the corner to the finish.”
His dad expressed that it was an absolute joy to see his son cross the finish line.
“It was an apex moment in my life to see him and see what he had accomplished, because it was a grueling course,” his father said with warmth in his voice. “Some of the things he has done in the Army give me a whole new respect for his service and for the Army.”
The pride his parents feel for their son’s accomplishments carry over to Thomas as a feeling of self-assurance.
“I don't think there's anything that I can't do, and I haven't failed myself yet,” he said with satisfaction. “Maybe one day I'll get to that point where my body fails me, I mean, I can't say that'll never happen. It just hasn't happened yet, and I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.”
Thomas said he did a 12-mile ruck march with his Soldiers less than a week after completing the Bataan Memorial Death March in preparation for the Norwegian foot march later this month.