Back in January, more than 50 Soldiers with the 525th Military Police Batallion competed in a 15-mile ruck march for the opportunity to travel to White Sands, N.M., where those with the top five quickest times would then compete in the national Bataan March.
Those lucky five recently returned to Guantanamo Bay, after placing fourth out of 23 in their category, with memories and an experience none of them will soon forget.
Brian Stuckey, first sergeant for the 193rd MP Company, explained his motivations for putting his team together.
"One reason was to be physically fit," he said. "And two, because there was a goal at the end of it, not just a PT test with push-ups and sit-ups."
There was, of course, a deeper meaning to the event, and Stuckey made sure his Soldiers never forgot it. For those who don't know the story, it goes like this:
During World War II, on April 9, 1942, thousands of American and Filipino servicemembers were surrendered to Japanese forces. Through the miserably hot Philippine jungles, the prisoners marched for several days under deadly supervision. Those who fell, stopped, talked or tried to help another prisoner were executed. The incident is now one of legend in the United States Army. In 1989, the New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march - the New Mexico National Guard's 200th Coast Artillery was among the prisoners at Bataan.
Now in its twentieth year, the march inspires more than 6,000 people from all parts of the country to join. And, in an emotional whollop, it has become tradition for survivors of the original Bataan march to greet participants at the beginning and end of the race.
"The reason we were there was the best experience," said Stuckey. "Walking out ... and being able to shake the hands of the individuals who were actually in the Bataan March by gunpoint, forcibly, for hundreds of miles. That was the epitome of it - that made the whole march worthwhile."
The history of the event hit the mark for his young Soldiers as well.
"The day we went to register, we passed one of the vets and I immediately got emotional," said Pfc. Tiffany Byers, who works in the S2 shop with the 525th Headquarters and Headquarters Company. "I was so amazed at the will to live they had and the turmoil they survived. I was just thankful to be there and represent the vets who didn't make it."
The road to White Sands was not an easy one. After the qualifying march, Stuckey set about training his newly acquired team. For two and a half months, they trained three hours a day, Monday through Friday and every other Saturday.
"We knew what we were getting into," explained Stuckey. "We talked to people who had been there before, but just to physically get out and march with that weight on your back was the best training we could do ... and we probably should've done more of it."
"1st Sgt. Stuckey did a really good job of training ... and preparing us," said Pfc. Robert Carroll, a corrections specialist with the 193rd MP Company.
"We knew we had to train hard to be competitive," Byers said. "We were more than prepared, but once you get past mile 15 or so, it was all about what we had inside that pushed us to the end."
Aside from the physical training, Stuckey had to bring the group together as a team. Only two of the Soldiers knew each other before the qualifying march - now they were spending up to 20 hours a week together, and Stuckey knew to place in New Mexico, they would have to trust and rely on each other.
"We would try once a week to have team building time and get breakfast together," said Stuckey. "[No one] really knew each other, but by the time we left, it was like, this is our family."
"Our group had such a good dynamic," explained Byers. "During training we were figuring each other out, but during the march, we were all on one page. It was all about the team."
Byers had a singular obstacle to overcome - of the five who left for New Mexico, she was the lone female.
"Being the only female in the group was a lot of pressure," she admitted. "I never wanted to be the weak female. I stayed strong and did what I had to do."
Stuckey watched Byers perform and said she literally - and figuratively - pulled her own weight.
"[She] never faltered," he said. "There was a goal, she set it in her mind and she did it."
As part of his motivational strategy, Stuckey told his Troops to find that one thing that would take them to the finish line.
"Find something in your heart," he told them from the beginning. "There's got to be something that's going to carry you over that edge, that's going to keep you moving."
For a few of his Soldiers, that inspiration came from the veterans who brought them to White Sands in the first place.
"That's all you can think about while you're doing the ruck, is how those guys actually did it," said Sgt. Axel Cardona, with the 296th MP company. "They didn't have people giving them water or anything like that, and they did it for over 100 miles."
"I kept trying to motivate myself with thoughts of the survivors," agreed Carroll. "I just had to keep reminding myself of them."
The group landed in New Mexico March 22 and continued to train. The march itself was held on the March 27, with teams stepping out at 7 a.m. With an assortment of military, civilians, families and children, the group described the scene as chaotic. It was time to put all their training to the test.
"The altitude was ungodly compared to what we trained with here," remembered Stuckey. "It averaged 4300 to 5300 above sea level. That was pretty overwhelming."
The altitude combined with the wind to make the experience even more unpleasant.
"We had on average 33 mile an hour winds," continued Stuckey. "They said that was the worst they've ever had it."
"The wind .. was pushing against us," recalled Spc. Anthony Spires, a human resources specialist with the 193rd. "It got so strong sometimes, I couldn't even walk."
Spires in particular was battling that day. In an unfortunate turn of events, he fell ill in the days before and was still recovering as they began the march. Stuckey said the young Soldier's determination was a motivator for all.
"Spires didn't eat for three days prior because he got sick," Stuckey explained. "[He] was probably the reason we finished where we did. Because he kept on and didn't let it affect him. That's my motivation, seeing my guys push through stuff like that. Blood and guts - they spilled it all."
In the middle of the 26.2 mile march was an uphill climb of about seven miles. It was at that point the team had to dig down deep and decide, individually, what they were capable of.
"I didn't think it was going to end," Spires remembered.
Cardona summed it up succinctly.
"Walking up that hill, I thought God should be up there, waiting for us."
Doubting their reasons for volunteering during the march, as the team neared the end and realized they were almost home, everyone agreed it was worth it.
"Crossing the finish line made me see the bigger picture," Byers said. "The march wasn't about us - it was about the survivors, those who didn't make it and the history [of the event.]"
Stuckey especially was proud of his group.
"I was happy we finished. That was truly the goal," he said. "Underlying that, we wanted to do good. We wanted to represent the battalion. They had faith in us."
Represent they did, with a fourth place finish.
"We went into it with high expectations," Stuckey acknowledged. "The training really spoke for itself by [placing fourth.]"
Now back on Guantanamo Bay and recovered from their adventures, everyone agrees they would not hesitate to do it all again. Spires said he would run it as a civilian, while Cardona wants to take his son. And of course, the first sergeant is ready.
"I would do it again in a heartbeat," Stuckey exclaimed. "The gratification of finishing is cool, but to know why you did it, made it even better. What an experience!"