True Boots: Marching for the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Bataan Memorial Death March

The 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

The 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

Last weekend’s Bataan Memorial Death March was about so many important things, and I will be writing and reflecting more on this. But for now, I’d like to focus on the cause I went in with for my first time marching the grueling 26.2 mile course at White Sands Missile Range: marching for the Urban Justice Center’s Veteran Advocacy Project (VAP).

Last Sunday began for me with an early morning: I’d slept in the back seat of my rental car in the good company of other marchers who had tents and RVs spread across open fields near the march’s starting and finish lines. It wasn’t a terribly comfortable sleep, but I woke up thinking of the many veterans who have lived day to day like this–sleeping in cars, on the street, in hidden places in cities, suburbs, rest stops, and rural areas across this country.

I shivered as I pulled myself out of my warm sleeping bag and into the cold air of the crisp pre-dawn morning. I slipped on flip flops and toddled out toward a nearby toilet–a precious resource. I came back to my car, put on my headlamp, and brushed my teeth using a bottle of water, rinsed my face, and then used a small propane burner to heat a cup of water so I could have a hot cup of instant coffee to get my day going. I powdered my feet (to prevent blisters), put on my uniform, laced up my boots, adjusted my ruck, ate a banana and some cheese for breakfast, and made all my last preparations to spend the day marching across the desert. This was definitely a less comfortable way of starting my day compared with my cozy Brooklyn life, but I also knew it to be a luxury compared with those who live like this day to day. Other marchers milled around me, many of them also veterans or active service members, but this was in some ways a lonely meditation on how others live.

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My fundraiser page on YouCaring.com.

Once I got myself ready, I put on the heavy ruck I’d be carrying for the day. As I mentioned on my fundraiser page, my ruck was a reminder of the weight we all carry until all of our veterans are home and well enough–physically, mentally, legally, and financially–to make unique and amazing contributions back to our communities and our country. The weight requirement for the “individual military heavy” division was 35 pounds. About 20 of the pounds I packed were soft bags of dried rice and beans to be donated to local food pantries at the finish line. I’d also added some other weight, including a first-aid kit, a change of socks, water, food, and other miscellany. It was heavy, but I’d been preparing for it. I locked the car and made my way to the starting stalls where some 6,000+ marchers would stand for the opening ceremony. 

The opening ceremony was a powerful and emotional event, which I’ll write about elsewhere. What I want to tell you about here is the march itself and some of what it meant to me. The top word I’d use to describe it is what another marcher said to me–humbling. A lot of young ROTC cadets were out there, and plenty of other fit folks both in uniform and civilian attire–and I saw them starting out strong. I started strong, too, although I wasn’t one of the heavy marchers who jogged those early miles. I admire their strength, and I know some of them finished just as strong as they started. But at different points along the 26.2 mile route, I saw many of these same motivated, able-bodied people at the various medical tents along the way, or stopped in exhaustion along the route. No matter who you were, or how in shape you were–you felt this. You were humbled.

After about three hours of going uphill, I didn't feel so great here.

After about three hours of going uphill, I didn’t feel so great.

I started out feeling energetic, and thought early on in the march that I was ahead of the game. I was not. By the 13-mile point, I felt totally depleted. I had to get off the course, pull my boots off, prop up my aching feet, make myself eat some food and rehydrate, and otherwise recharge. For a short while I felt completely disappointed in myself–maybe I should’ve done things differently to not feel this way, or maybe I was just weak because I just couldn’t hack it. I’d foregone taking breaks because I didn’t want to stop until at least halfway. I’d taken in less water than I should have because I didn’t want to refill my Camelbak until later along the course. I’d gone in thinking I was a pro at this. I wasn’t.

I thought of the American and Filipino survivors who marched those devastating 60+ miles across the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines in 1942, without even the basics of food or water, and where stragglers were bayoneted or beheaded by Japanese troops. (Also I must note here: Louis Wawrzonek, the uncle of one of my supporters, was awarded a Silver Star for his bravery at Corregidor, only to watch it fall to the Japanese a month after the Bataan surrender. He died in captivity.) I’d reached what felt like my own breaking point so early on. I felt exhausted, and just plain bad. But I also thought of all the privileges I have. All the good luck and incredible opportunities I’ve had. The great people in my life. The fact that so many people–many of them veterans–cared enough about what I was doing to collectively donate more than $100 per mile that I was marching, plus give me so many words of encouragement. Being humbled is one thing, but wanting to give up is entirely another. I re-powdered my feet, put on a dry pair of socks, laced up my boots again, and got my ruck back on for another five hours.

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Oh, my feet.

There was so much to feel both physically and emotionally over a long day of uphill miles, soft sand, sunburn, and aching feet. But more than anything, my experience drove home for me that for any hard moments or days in our lives, it’s the feeling of support that makes all the difference. Do we have people back at home rooting for us? Are there helpful, kind words from colleagues and strangers along the way? Do others care about what we’re doing? Do others care that we might be struggling? Can we muster a smile or kind words to encourage others even through our own struggle? Life isn’t easy. But it’s a lot less hard when others are there to help.

The reason I chose the Veteran Advocacy Project as a fundraising cause for my march is that their work in providing free legal services–even for the veterans whose cases other nonprofits find too difficult or complicated to help–is exactly the kind of support veterans need when their lives have unraveled to the point where maybe they feel there’s nowhere else to turn. All of VAP’s precious resources go toward direct services for these veterans. When I asked if I could get a t-shirt to wear for the march, I found out they don’t really have promotional materials–VAP’s director special-ordered a one-of-a-kind VAP t-shirt for me to wear for the march. It’s was truly an honor to wear the shirt and feel support from everyone at VAP in addition to all those who donated–while at the same time knowing the donations would go toward an organization that supports those who need it most.

I’ve felt lucky to find purpose and meaning, especially recently, in service and advocacy for veterans returning home–and also for those who’ve been home a while but have been forgotten. I’ve also found a profound amount of support in the NYC veterans community. Among the many inspirational veterans I know, Bob Raphael is a Marine who served in Vietnam, and has, like too many of his fellow veterans, been badly affected by Agent Orange poisoning. He told me that I needed to do this march–there were just too many veterans who couldn’t. This, of course, has stuck with me. And it’s true not just for a 26.2-mile march–it’s true of so many other things that I do, even when I feel knocked on my ass like I was at mile 13. So I carried this with me–as well as wearing visible reminders on my wrist–throughout the march, and onward.

Black for Roger and all those we lost in battle and after. Orange for Bob and all those who've fought and are still fighting against Agent Orange poisoning from Vietnam.

Black for Roger and all those we lost in battle and after. Orange for Bob and all those who’ve fought and are still fighting against Agent Orange poisoning from Vietnam.

It was a humbling day, but profoundly meaningful. I don’t know that I would’ve made it without the incredible support that I am so fortunate to have. Thanks to each of you who’ve supported me personally, as well as everyone who donated to VAP through my fundraiser.

I’m leaving my VAP fundraising page open through the end of the month for anyone else who feels moved to support this great cause–and please do. There simply isn’t any single, sweeping solution for veteran homelessness, veteran suicide, and veterans having problems reintegrating back into civilian society. The VA and other government and government-funded resources only do so much. It’s up to us to find and support the things that work. VAP is one of those.

Thanks everyone. And more soon about this incredible event I took part in.

Minutes after reaching the finish line. Ruck off, and proudly wearing my one-of-a-kind VAP shirt.

Minutes after reaching the finish line. Ruck off, and proudly wearing my one-of-a-kind VAP shirt.