By Amber Avalona/ParaglideApril 22, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Soldiers, veterans and former prisoners of war ... the warriors gathered as one, creating a trail of dust across a 26-mile stretch of Southwestern desert on the morning of March 27. Wounded warriors with prosthetic legs, a veteran who wore a sign "made in the USA in 1928" and some of the Army's best ruckers walked across White Sands Missile Range, N.M., for the 22nd annual Bataan Memorial Death March.
The Bataan Memorial Death March pales in comparison to the original, 60-mile march forced upon American POWs by their Japanese captors in the spring of 1942. Those who survived the starvation and disease and brutality of the jungle trek, lived to endure the horrors of a World War II POW camp. Now in its 22nd year, the BMDM allows younger Soldiers to honor the memory of men whose service took them to the brink of 'hell' and back.
"The horror those men survived is incomprehensible to the average person, even the average Soldier. I am proud to wear the same uniform as those men and this was one way to let them know it," said Lt. Col. Jennifer Caci, environmental science officer at United States Army Special Operations Command, who redeployed from Afghanistan just two weeks before the march.
Caci's five-woman team competed in the military, female-heavy division of the 26.2 mile march. The idea for an all-female, special-operations specific team was traced to Maj. Anne Hessinger, who finished with a time of 9:16:24. Hessinger is the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade veterinarian who set her sights on the memorial march in 2010. Fate intervened and Hessinger deployed to Haiti as a member of the joint task force, putting plans for the march on hold.
For BMDM 2011, Hessinger recruited Maj. Elizabeth Williams (96th CA BN) and Maj. Kelly Still-Brooks (98th CA BN), two veterinarians from her brigade. The trio completed their team with invites to Lt. Col. Christine Lang, staff preventive medicine doctor in USASOC, and Caci, and named their team USASOC PMS.
"Something challenging like a marathon, a triathlon or the Bataan march gives you a greater sense of confidence about yourself and opens life up to expanding possibilities," said Lang, who joined the Army as a 21-year old private first class.
USASOC PMS trained with bi-weekly, five- or six- mile rucks, and weekend rucks that began as six-mile marches and built momentum to 21 miles (due to deployment, Caci trained overseas). Fort Bragg's elevation stands a mere 187 feet above sea level in contrast to White Sands Missile Range, which is over 4,000 feet higher. To compensate for the altitude difference, USASOC PMS trained with extra weight in their 35-pound rucksacks.
In addition, the terrain of White Sands is known to trip up competitors, especially the ankle-deep sands of the Sand Pit. Race organizers also warn of loose rocks, crags and rattlesnakes. But the area, long used for military defense testing, offers a scenic route of rugged sites like the Organ Mountains (which resemble organ pipes), and Missile Park, a manufactured garden of missiles and rockets previously tested in the area.
USASOC PMS funded their trip to New Mexico and competed as one of two, female-heavy teams. As added incentive to finish, the officers rucked 175 pounds of canned food, and afterward donated the non-perishables to New Mexico food banks.
Completing with a combined time of 9:16:27, they finished second to the Fort Bragg sponsored female team, but ahead of 14 men's teams. For women who ranged in age from their early 30s to early 40s, the officers were proud of their success and the opportunity to represent the Army's female component.
"I hope that more military women - and just women in general - will start to see that literally anything is possible. You just have to begin to dream and take those small steps forward," Lang said.