Bataan 2019: There Were Tears

I have purposefully waited to write this “results” post for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March. It has taken the past 36-hours to process the event and what ultimately happened. The mental, physical, and emotional roller coaster of the past 48-hours has been difficult to process. A rundown of my experience during the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March follows.

The pre-dawn ceremony led by a state politician, the garrison commander of White Sands Missile Range, and involving three of the remaining survivors of the original Bataan Death March started promptly at 6:30 AM. Of course, those participating in the march had been shivering in the freezing cold (literally, it was 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below up until the starting cannon went off) for several hours. However, spirits were light as the motivational speeches were capped off by a parachute demonstration from the Special Operations Force’s parachute demonstration team The Black Daggers. About the time the jumpers landed, the Husband and I kicked off our walk to the sound of a cannon firing a large blank into nothingness.

We were happy to start walking. The morning chill slowly gave way as the sign crested the horizon. I couldn’t help thinking about the beauty of it all. Over 8,600 people of all ages, races, sexuality, military status, and motivations starting a grueling course as the day officially began. We were all out there for something and, hopefully, it was enough to carry us through to the end.

For the first two miles, we were on hardball (concrete road) and bunched together with everyone else. Those with the idea to compete for real times were bouncing around from one gap between marchers to the next. Young and old alike jostled each other for more room to stretch their legs. Oddly enough, this entire dance was very polite, filled with “excuse me” and “on your left/right” and people happily stepping to the side to allow these jack rabbits to move forward.

The first checkpoint was at Mile Marker 2 with water, gatorade, oranges, bananas, and, most importantly for those too shy to go in the desert-line, porta-potties. From this point until the Mile Marker 8 we marched along a hard-packed (ish) sand trail. Fortunately, the organizers doubled the width of this trail since last year making it less claustrophobic and easier for the speedy marchers to maintain their pace while slower marchers could stay out of the way with less crowding. They also wetted the sand (or maybe that was just the weather) and compressed it so there was less knee/ankle twisting than last year. The Husband and I maintained an easy 19-minute per mile pace throughout these first 8 miles without any issues.

Mile Marker 8 was a giant checkpoint with medical facilities and the standard hydration tools found at most other checkpoints. It also acted as the split for marchers: keep walking to the left and you’re on the Honorary Route (14.2 miles) while going to the right sends you out to what I call the Lollypop portion of the route (the 12 extra miles that’ll put you at 26.2 miles at the finish line). We took an extended break here to evaluate our status, eat some food, drink some water, and decide our route.

I felt good at this point. There wasn’t the tell-tale pain of potential injury, just the standard fatigue associated with long walks through the desert. My hopes were high that we would finish the full 26.2 mile course. With just under one-third of the march completed, the day was still bright and full of optimism. We agreed that we were both in good shape and headed out to the Lollypop.

Once we went under Highway 82, a steady incline presented itself for the next 4.5 miles. Fortunately, this incline was on hardball until the Mile Marker 10 (ish) so no slipping or sliding on rocks or sand. We maintained our pace of 19-minutes per mile throughout this portion of the course. Our legs and joints started to protest near Mile Marker 10, but nothing appeared to be serious at that point.

After exiting the hardball and making it through the strategically place fundraiser setup by New Mexico State University we continued on towards the halfway point on a semi-firmly packed sand road. It was about this point I realized something was wrong. Around Mile Marker 11 (a mile into the sand road), my left hip flexor began to hurt whenever I place weight on it. The pain was more of an annoyance than a hinderance and I chalked it up to standard long-distance marching pains. I let the Husband know what was going on but specified, “this isn’t a stop and quit thing, but I want you to know…”. He asked some follow-up questions (it’s that medic inside of him) and requested I let him know if it got worse.

At Mile Marker 13 (halfway’ish point) we took an extended break to hydrate and eat. The pain in my hip flexor had become more steady and worrisome. I had yet to start walking with a noticeable limp, but I was trying to figure out if it was simply the way in which I was stepping or if the pain was universal regardless of my footfall. No solution to the pain had presented itself. I began to dwell on the problem which, I’m sure, didn’t help all that much. The optimism from earlier was quickly eroding into true concern and fear.

We continued on, maintaining that 19-minute per mile pace as we pushed through the halfway checkpoint and trudged our way around a small mountain back to the hardball. Each step became more painful and less manageable. I found going uphill was easier than downhill and the softer sandy areas of the road hurt less than the hard packed areas. No adjustments to my footfall seemed to help consistently ease the pain. By Mile Marker 15 I knew I was in real trouble. Of course, I let the Husband know what was going on and his crinkled brow told me he was going to be keeping a very close eye on me.

At Mile Marker 18, we found ourselves back on the hardball we had walked up on our start around the mountain. It was here that I had to do a gut-check and decide whether I could make it through the full course. I had a noticeable limp and was in a pretty constant state of pain, not just when I put weight on my left leg. My hip flexor was throbbing and a grimace had plastered itself across my face. I was in real trouble.

We stopped for a bit just past the checkpoint to hydrate and rest. I tried stretching my hip flexor. With my left leg straight, I tried leaning to my left and found myself nearly collapsing due to the pain this movement caused. Interestingly, squatting wasn’t a problem nor was doing the same action on my right leg. I was now scared. We were two-thirds of the way through the course, we were well past the point of being on our way home. It was was only 8 more miles. There was no way I wouldn’t be able to finish the course. It was just two and a half hours of walking left. Surely I could handle that, right? After about 15 minutes, we got up and resumed the march.

Within 100 meters of starting again, I had to stop. A couple of seconds of relieving the pressure on my left leg allowed me to go another 100 meters. This pattern continued for the next half mile. After the sixth or seventh painful pause, it dawned on me like a ton of bricks smacking me upside the head: I wasn’t going to be able finish.

I barely processed this realization before telling the Husband I was done. He asked if I was sure and I confirmed my statement. I couldn’t make it. Internally, I realized I had failed. I tried choking back the tears that forced their way up to the surface. I was only partially successful.

In my life, I have rarely outright failed at anything I have pursued. In the Army I failed Air Assault school due to an unforeseen fear of heights when attached to objects grounded in the earth (read: I don’t like really tall ladders or the edge of buildings). As a contractor, I failed to be promoted to a supervisory position (twice). As a civilian, I have failed to complete a 4-year college degree, because I have never completely bought into the reason for obtaining such a degree.

On Sunday, March 17, 2019 I voluntarily withdrew myself from the Bataan Memorial Death March due to being too weak to complete the course.

A big shout out to the White Sands Police, Border Patrol, and volunteers for getting me safely off the course. Their professionalism and understanding of the situation is without comparison.

Until Monday afternoon, I wanted to crawl into a deep, dark hole curled up in a little ball ignoring the world. I guess you could describe it as sulking. Processing this entire experience and all the things that went right and wrong has been just shy of overwhelming. I know I will be back next year to finish this damned course.

What was your experience at the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March? Any pointers for training up? Did you finish? If not, what went wrong? Drop into the comments and share!

Bataan 2019: Why we voluntarily walk 26.2 miles

On March 17, 2019, the Bataan Memorial Death March will occur. This will be the second year The Husband and I participate in this event and we are beside ourselves with excitement. To most people, it seems odd for a couple to use precious vacation time for the opportunity to walk on dirt roads through the high-desert of White Sands Missile Range for 26.2 miles. Upon finishing, we will be in pain, exhausted, and dehydrated. Our reward? A certificate of participation and aching bodies.

I wrote about this last year as well, but I still get confused, even bewildered, looks from coworkers, friends, and strangers when I describe the event so I want to touch on why we have decided to make this an annual pilgrimage.

By Ле Лой – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43326904

Let’s start by looking past the pain, heat, and dust – this event is a memorial to tens of thousands of prisoners of war who were forced to march more than 60 miles without adequate food, water, or medical care in the Philippines during World War II. If they failed to walk, they died. Those who made it showed incredible strength and a will to survive most people will never have to face in their lifetime. This is more than just a marathon, it is a salute to those who would not be defeated; it is a testament to the fortitude of human beings under immense stress; it is a payment of respect to the survivors and the hundreds who didn’t live to see Camp O’Donnell.

My own experiences in the Army motivate me to participate in these types of events. I have witnessed true courage under the most high-stress and dire conditions. It may seem weird to the uninitiated, but taking part in the Bataan Memorial Death March is more than a personal badge of honor, it is a show of respect to those who served and sacrificed before me. By showing a willingness to experience even a tenth of what they went through, I hope the survivors will see they are not forgotten and their sacrifices do not go unnoticed.

Bataan Memorial Death March

A more grounded element of my motivation is the challenge of the event itself. A majority of the route takes advantage of semi-improved dirt roads that snake through the mesquite and scrub brush of White Sands Missile Range. These roads consist of loose, deep sand churned up by thousands of people slogging along its course causing feet to sink deeper into it with each heavy step. Ankles, calves, knees, and quadriceps are pushed to the limit with steady inclines in this sandbox environment. The physical challenge is one thing, but each step drains a person’s mental commitment to finishing the course. I have always avoided the easy path, thinking of it as cheating. You can’t grow as a person by doing everything the easy way, you have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and into new territory otherwise you’ll atrophy.

Pre-Event Selfie – 2018

Finally, this is a bonding experience for The Husband and I. Last year, we found ourselves at each other’s throats off and on, but it is understandable given the pain we found ourselves in. Despite some hostility (we still love each other very much), we managed to complete the Honorary Route (14 mile course that excludes the lollipop section that starts at checkpoint 8) without killing one another or causing serious bodily harm to each other. Between these bouts of pain and dehydration fueled fits, we talked, laughed, and enjoyed the experience together. To be honest, I think the Bataan Memorial Death March would be a great couples counseling session for anyone who wants to see their partner at their rawest.

So, that’s a glimpse into why I participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should consider taking part in it at some point in their life. You can learn a lot from yourself in the middle of nowhere.

To register, head over to the official Bataan Memorial Death March site and click the “Register” button. Prices just went up at the beginning of 2019 with another planned increase in February. Don’t wait, only the first 5,000 participants are guaranteed a full race packet, it’s got some good stuff in it!

September 11th – Our Day of Infamy

At this point, you’re social media feeds have been packed with #NeverForget, #NeverAgain, #AlwaysRemember, and American flags all day long. Good! Events like September 11, 2001 should not be forgotten for fear of history repeating itself. Anyone who thinks the evil of this world is suddenly going to throw their hands up and quit preying on the innocent is a bit naive.

I am writing this post while flying from Portland to Los Angeles then to Albuquerque on an American Airline’s plane. I’ve seen a number of threads on social media asking “Where were you when…” or “What were you doing when…” and it felt appropriate to share in a post written while flying.

At the time of the attacks, I lived in Midland Texas and was a stereotypical rebellious “goth” teenager. I made a point to play devil’s advocate whenever possible and bucked against the establishment simply to test boundaries. I balked at the military and shared my far-left anti-establishment politics with anyone around me (whether they wanted to listen or not). I was a senior in high school and felt more than ready to take on the world.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I found myself in bowling class (yes, bowling class, the alternative to traditional P.E. – because, goth). We had just arrived at the bowling alley when the second plane hit the South Tower. The class took notice and paused all conversation, trying to figure out what movie the alley was playing. It only took a few seconds to realize it was all too real.

No one rolled a ball that day; no cheers for a strike; no smiles could be found on the two dozen kids in that class nor the three adults who worked at the lanes. Any talking was hushed whispers as all eyes were glued to the television screens which normally showed repeats of past bowling tournaments and advertisements for bad nachos and over-sweet sodas. Life felt like it had stopped.

It was fairly obvious to me that the world changed that morning. America wouldn’t be the same, the world wouldn’t be the same, , my generation wouldn’t be the same, I wouldn’t be the same. Having grown up in relative peace (all American conflicts had been low-grade combat operations that hadn’t lasted all that long – the Gulf War being the exception), I knew it wasn’t impossible for a full-scale war to occur in my lifetime, but it did seem unlikely until that morning.

At the appointed time (after all civilian air traffic was grounded, the Pentagon had been hit, and Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania), we all loaded the bus and returned to school. I remember going to my parked truck instead of my next class and another student walking by and asking “Why you pissed off?” I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to ask him “Why aren’t you pissed off?” I couldn’t really reply other than to tell him to watch the news.

I left school shortly thereafter.

The attacks of September 11th weren’t a primary influence in my decision to join the Army nor did I suddenly hate all Muslims or form a negative opinion of an entire region because of the actions of a few, but, I can say it helped push me to be an Infantryman. Male pride and ego played into this decision as well, but knowing that we were attacked as a nation that day sure didn’t hurt my motivations.

I can only hope that we, as a country, never have to experience an event like this again; however, history is bound to repeat itself when we forget the lessons we have learned in the past.

Where were you? What were you doing? How did you respond to these attacks?

Happy Birthday Army!

platoon
Korea c. 2003 – I’m in front of the back row a few people in from the left. This was one of my first field problems as a Team Leader.

Today, the US Army turns 243 years old; Happy Birthday Army!

To learn more about the formation and broad history of the Army, you can check out the history site of the US Army for more information. I would like to add that I was a part of the oldest branch of the Army (the Infantry). Just another bragging right the Infantry has over the rest of the Army 😉

However, this post isn’t just to say Happy Birthday to the Army or play the “my branch was better than yours” game; I am using this post to say “Thank you” to the US Army and highlight other means of doing your civic duty.

When I joined this aging organization I was a cocky, annoying, know-it-all teenager with no real direction in life. The Army set me on a path to success in life through hard work, discipline, self-sacrifice, and old-school grit. I truly believe if I hadn’t served the sometimes grueling, often times exhilarating, and always proud years in the Army, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the person I am today.

I do not believe military service is for everyone; some people simply aren’t built for the lifestyle (physically, emotionally, or mentally). That being said, it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to spend time in government service more suited to their interests and strengths. If you love nature, go work for a couple of years in the Forest Service; more about helping people in need find housing, HUD is for you; want to give back to veterans who sacrificed so much for so many, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs. Live and learn within these organizations so change can be affected by the masses instead of being afterthoughts in the minds of politicians during campaign season.

What do you get in return? A few things:

  • A better understanding how these organizations are actually run on a day-to-day basis. We as a citizenry assume we know what is going on, but, in reality, so much of our government runs on policy and process unknown by the general public.
  • A sense of civic pride and national identity. People will feel a sense of ownership in their government again because they gave a piece of themselves to keep it going and improve it.
  • Maybe, just maybe, a program could be organized that after a minimal amount of service is completed, participants will receive funds for further education (you know, college or a trade school of the participants choice). Much like the GI Bill for the military, these funds are not likely to cover 100% of the cost of the education, but it would go a long way. And, no, you couldn’t withdraw the money to spend it on whatever you want.

Not sure if this “Civic Pride” idea will catch any fire, but it doesn’t hurt to share.

Happy birthday Army! Thank you for all you have done for me and I wish you many more years of proud service!

What are your thoughts on civic duty? Share your thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to like and share http://www.averageluke.com!

3 Reasons People Become Addicted to War

Company Mission - LUTAFIYAH - Hell (2)
Me during my third tour in Iraq (Iskandariyah ’07-’08) waiting on a company mission to kickoff.

Let’s be honest, any rational person reading the title of this blog post thinks it’s crazy for anyone to be addicted to such a horrible course of events classified as a war. However, these same rational people, when thrust into the dangerous profession of being a front line soldier are at risk of becoming addicted. It can happen gradually over an extended period of time or all at once. What cannot be disputed is that everyone is at risk.

So, why does this happen? What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war? How can a person be willing to do anything to get their next fix of something all civilized societies in the history of the world have classified as the worst part of human nature? Why are these addicts encouraged to pursue their addiction? What can be done to save these people before the inevitable results of constant exposure to high-stress, life-threatening events exacts the ultimate cost?

For answers to the questions above, you’ll have to keep checking in to this blog. This post will only attempt to shed light on the one of them: What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war?

Let’s get into it…

One: Belief in a cause…

This is the most obvious and the most prominent. When a person has such strong convictions in the reason for the war occurring in the first place it is easy for them to want to do everything possible to support it. This includes returning to the most dangerous places on Earth time and again to fight for that cause. Many service members want to be in combat because they feel like they are fulfilling their duty to protect their country from <insert enemy title> (think terrorists, communists, fascists, and other bad “ists”). A cause is a powerful thing and governments throughout history have created causes to lure their citizenry into voluntarily putting themselves in danger for the fulfillment of the cause.

Two: Adrenaline…

There is no feeling in the world like the pure adrenaline pumped into your body when another human being is actively attempting to end your life AND you have the capacity to stop them from accomplishing their mission. It’s the ultimate win. Athletes get a taste of this when they win a high-stakes competition; business leaders sample this feeling after closing a big financial deal; everyone savors it right after narrowly escaping a car wreck. No one but the front line combat troops (and law enforcement officers) truly understand this type of adrenaline pump. Addiction to adrenaline is in and of itself an addiction, but adrenaline from an engagement with the enemy is unique in my opinion.

Three: The simple life…

This one is likely to confuse some people, but I will attempt to clarify. For a young, single, no children at home combat troop, combat is the simplest existence on the planet. No utility bills to pay, housing (shelter is a more apt description) is provided, food is available…all the basic necessities of life are provided. Money isn’t worth much because there isn’t anything to spend it on (except cigarettes, dip, candy, gear, and hygiene products). The almighty dollar won’t save you in a firefight. Life is simpler with three objectives:

  1. Accomplish the mission
  2. Bring everyone else home
  3. Bring yourself home

Married combat troops – not sure how much this one applies to you, but I’m sure some of you would agree with this description.

This is just my take on the “problem” of addiction to war – feel free to shout me down in the comments!