Fourteen Marine Raiders are getting ready to step off one month from today on a 770-mile ruck march to commemorate their fallen brothers on the one-year anniversary of a Black Hawk crash that killed 11 troops off the coast of Florida.
On March 11, the group, Marine Raider Memorial March, will depart the crash site at Navarre, Florida, on the 11-day, round-the-clock operation to the Raiders’ home at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, delivering the only surviving piece of equipment from the crash: a paddle belonging to one of the fallen dead Raiders.
Staff Sgt. Nate Harris, a critical skills operator who began organizing the march the day after the crash, said the undertaking will honor the families of the fallen.
"I wanted to do something to give back to the families," he said. "There's never enough we can do for the families; we have to show them how much these men and their families mean to us."
On March 10, 2015, seven Raiders and four Louisiana National Guardsmen members perished when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter hit the water off the Florida Panhandle during a training mission in inclement weather.
One year later, the 14 critical skills operators and special amphibious reconnaissance corpsmen in the Marine Corps Special Operations Command are taking leave from active-duty assignments to split into seven two-man teams — each in honor of one of the Raiders — and walk day and night over 10- to 12-mile relay segments and four states until they arrive at Camp Lejeune.
"It's a way of saying to the families, 'Hey, we're still here and this is what your husbands, your fathers or your sons mean to you and what they mean to us,'" said a staff sergeant with the 1st Raider Battalion participating in the march who requested anonymity, citing security concerns. "It's a way to give back and say that everyone is still here, everyone is still carrying that pack."
The Raiders are currently gearing up for the event, putting in extra miles after duty and coordinating local support along the way.
"We all ruck and run a lot as it is; we generally try to stay in shape," the staff sergeant said. "Now we're doing a bit more rucking, trying to condition the feet."
Working with the Brothers in Arms Foundation, a nonprofit organization directly supporting the wounded and families of the fallen in the Marines special operations community, the Raiders are raising funds for the families as well as for basic logistics along the journey.
The route was designed to pass by several military installations, including Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, and the Naval Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Florida.
On March 11, 2016, the first of seven two-man teams will set off on the first of their 110 mile segment. Teams will alternate approximately every 11 miles, marching overnight until reaching their end point at Courthouse Bay.
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The undertaking has received an outpouring of support, the staff sergeant said.
"It's really easy for us to put a pack on and go for a walk, honestly, but seeing the places we're going to be walking through and people already reaching out saying we want to be involved however we can, it's pretty awesome to see," he said. "It's really cool seeing all these different entities, veterans and non-vets, stepping in and saying 'we want to make this grow, we want to give the community support.'"
The teams will carry the paddle belonging to one of the lost Raiders in keeping alive a tradition dating back to the Marine Raiders' World War II legacy, when an inscribed paddle was presented to the family of those killed in action. The teams will present this one to Lt. Col. Craig Wolfenbarger, commander of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, during a ceremony aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
"We'll bring this paddle back to where it belongs in North Carolina," the staff sergeant said. "We're a close community, but everyone's always busy, gone on deployments, always training, so when you have something like this where guys come in from all over the country, it draws those bonds that much tighter."
Given how close the community is, many of the participating Raiders knew the fallen personally, and the march will afford the opportunity to reflect on their lives and service.
For those who didn't, it's also a chance to pass on their legacy, said a participating gunnery sergeant with 2nd Raider Battalion who also requested anonymity.
"The younger guys that are coming up now, they are their brothers as well," he said. "We're all family, and for them to see what we do for our family, not just in life but in death, that's going to speak volumes."