By Wallace McBride, Fort Jackson LeaderApril 12, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. (April 12, 2012) -- The man in the wheelchair stood up, walked over and stuck out his hand. There were some protests from his family as he stood, but they let it pass. Retired Col. Ben Skardon survived an 80-mile march at gunpoint in the South Pacific during World War II, so they decided he was safe to take a few steps away from them in a New Mexico airport.
Sgt. 1st Class Ricardo Gutierrez took note of the man's hat, which marked him as not only a veteran, but a survivor of the Bataan Death March during World War II. Gutierrez and Skardon were both leaving an annual commemorative marathon in White Sands, N.M., but Gutierrez couldn't imagine why the man would want to speak to him.
He was even more surprised when Skardon stuck out his hand and said: "I want to thank you for allowing us to do this."
"Thanks for making it possible for me to serve my country," Gutierrez answered.
Gutierrez, of Moncrief Army Community Hospital, has been participating in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March since 2005, an event that drew more than 7,000 participants to take part in the 26.2-mile hike on March 25.
Gutierrez said only 12 survivors of the Bataan Death March were able to visit this year's event, so it was not only an honor to meet one of them, but a surprise to be thanked for helping perpetuate the event.
"I was amazed," Gutierrez said. "It's truly an honor to see the smile on their faces, to commentate the memory of what they've gone though."
The Bataan Death March was the forcible transfer, by the Imperial Japanese Army, of 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines during World War II. Of the 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war that were forced to march, only 54,000 made it alive to the destination. The marathon launched in 1989 to honor the men who sacrificed their health, freedom and lives during the march to Bataan.
Gutierrez said the hike is not for the faint of heart. It begins on the White Sands Missile Range main post, crosses dusty and hilly terrain, circles a mountain and returns to the main post through desert trails. The elevation ranges from 4,100 to 5,300 feet and the winds can hit speeds of 40 mph. The hike will take a toll on even the fittest of runners and can keep them on the road for as long as 12 hours.
"I'm blistered sore, cramping, crying and crawling to my car," he said of the marathon's end. "But I wanted to feel what they had felt, been through what they went though, even though I know it's not the same."
Gutierrez finished in first place in the "Military - light" category in 2012. He ordinarily competes in the "Military - heavy" category, which requires participants to carry a backpack, but an injury set him back this year.
"Ask anyone who finishes, they'll say, 'This is the last time I'm doing this.' But, after the pain's gone, it's all worth it. I want to do this again and again for the rest of my life, to honor these guys."