A 770-mile journey in honor of seven fallen heroes is coming to an end.
Wearing 45-pound weighted rucksacks, 14 Marine Raiders and Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Navy Corpsmen are marching their last stretch of the Marine Raider Memorial March on Monday morning.
While performing a nighttime training mission during foggy conditions, a Black Hawk helicopter carrying seven Marines and four Louisiana National Guardsmen crashed in the Santa Rosa Sound on March 10, 2015, off the coast of Florida. All 11 military members were killed in the crash, seven of which were Marines.
The Marines who died in the crash were Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III, 31; Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders, 33; Staff Sgt. Marcus S. Bawol, 26; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29; Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, 33; Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp, 27; and Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, 26. The Guardsmen, who were killed in the crash, included Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Wayne Griffin Jr., 37; Chief Warrant Officer 4 George David Strother, 44; Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron, 40; and Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich, 26.
In honor of the lives that were lost the Marines are marching from the crash site near Navarre, Florida to Camp Lejeune where the Marines were stationed, according to the Marine Raider Memorial March website.
The ruckers, as they call themselves because of the rucksacks on their backs, are carrying a very special memento.
A single intact paddle was found in the wreckage from the crash. That paddle has become a symbol of the loss felt by the Marine Raiders.
The paddle the ruckers carry has been decorated in memory of the seven fallen Marines. One side is adorned with unit patches and the other with dog tags.
Each of the 14 ruckers has a personal connection to the fallen Marine Raiders, said Lauren Smith, the operations director with the march. Some were longtime friends and others are family members, though the ruckers have posted on their Facebook page that Marine Raiders as a whole feel a sense of family and community that is second to none.
Smith has walked 40 of the 770-miles with the Marines to fully appreciate what they're doing. Smith and others are walking with the Marines at various points. She said it didn't feel right to not put herself through the same discomfort they're feeling.
"Even though we all have blistered feet, our knees are sore ... we're fighting through every single day because we keep in mind that we have the honor of bringing the fallen seven home," Smith said.
Each team has walked in 11-mile segments, on average, since the march began.
"I don't think the general public understands what that means," Smith said. "I had absolutely no idea what it meant to travel 11 to 12 miles carrying a 45-pound rucksack."
- But if anyone can complete a 770-mile trip, on foot, in 11 days, it's Marines.
"They're Marines. They're taught to overcome pain," Smith said, adding that the moral is still high for the ruckers.
The ruckers have a lot of time to think, Smith said. There's a lot of reflection in the middle of the night, especially after hearing stories about the fallen seven from civilians who have walked with them. The ruckers now carry others' memories along with their own.
Inside the rucksacks have 6 pounds of water, personal gear and large steel plates with the names of the 11 military members killed in the crash, according to a Facebook post. The plates tip the scales at 40 pounds.
The Facebook page has been updated regularly with posts and photos of their progress since they stepped off in Florida, including notes from the ruckers on why they chose to ruck 770 miles.
One rucker, identified as "Andy H.," said Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn was a longtime friend of his and he's walking from Florida to Camp Lejeune for Flynn's daughter, Leilani.
"As she grows up, I'm confident she will know what an amazing man and warrior her daddy was, but I want her to also understand how important he was to me and so many other people," he said.
Be there for the final stretch
Smith said the groups will be setting off for the final leg of the journey at 9:30 a.m. Monday from Stump Sound Park, located at 1771 N.C. 172 in Sneads Ferry. Supporters can line the roads and march with the ruckers from the park to the Marine Federal Credit Union, located at 467 N.C. 210 in Holly Ridge, the span of about 3.5 miles.
The ruckers are hoping residents come out to celebrate and support their commitment. Flags, banners and cheers are welcomed for those who'd like to see the ruckers home to Stone's Bay. The ruckers will present the decorated paddle to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion following their final walk.
Those interested in donating may do so at MarineRaiderMemorialMarch.com. T-shirts in honor of the march are available for pre-order online at GruntWorks11b.com for $24.99. The outline of a Marine walking with the paddle is printed on the front along with "Honoring them one step at a time." On the back, the names of the fallen seven are printed.
There will be dog tags and coins available for purchase on Monday morning if any are left, Smith added.