.....Advertisement.....
.....Advertisement.....

A dose of patriotism

-A A +A
By The Staff

Editor’s Note: The following provides a first-hand account of the recent Bataan Memorial Death March as perceived by a local writer and scientist.As war continues in Iraq and the U.S. economy declines, most Americans can probably use a good dose of patriotism. For those who love a challenge, they need look no further than southern New Mexico, where the Bataan Memorial Death March takes place every year at the White Sands Missile Range.The Bataan Memorial Death March began in 1989 as a humble tribute to the soldiers who defended the islands of Luzon and Corregidor, and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines during World War II.On April 9, 1942, more than 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers were captured by the Japanese, including members of the New Mexico National Guard. The prisoners were marched 60 miles under brutal conditions to prison camps. At least 6,000 died en route and many more died after reaching the camps.The memorial march held March 30 was the largest ever, with 4,500 participants representing every state and several foreign nations.Although the largest division was military, civilians are also welcome to participate as either individuals or in five-person teams.What makes this marathon unusual is the “heavy” category in which marchers must carry a minimum of 35 pounds in a pack. Marchers may also choose to race “light,” i.e., without a pack.Having done several typical marathons already, I chose to race the 26.2 miles with a 35-pound backpack.Race day began in the dark with the participants assembling in either the military or civilian corral.At dawn, the opening ceremony began with a somber roll call to honor those who died in the Philippines. Then a hush enveloped the crowd as all turned to face a garrison flag billowing in the stiff morning breeze.Soldiers saluted and civilians held their hands over their hearts as our national anthem filled the desert air followed by cannon fire and an F-117 flyover.After the ceremony, we walked past a thin row of Bataan Death March survivors extending their hands to us on our way to the start line. I shook every hand I could.Then we crossed the start line and the race was on. The course began near the Organ Mountains and meandered about the desert, climbing 1,000 feet total. The surface added to the challenge, varying between asphalt, hard-pack double-track and ankle-deep sand. Although cool in the morning, the temperature reached the 80s by midday, and shade became something we wished for but never received.And, always, the gusty wind reminded us it was still spring in New Mexico.Participating in the march was truly special. At all times, I was surrounded by both military personnel and civilians marching in honor of the Bataan soldiers as well as military heroes in their own families.Support along the course was excellent, with water/Gatorade stops every two miles and, later in the race, fruit and cookies added to the selection. Marchers supported each other, as well, when the pain started to overcome the enthusiasm.A few times, I looked up the trail to see an American flag in the hands of a marcher, and that unabashed expression of patriotism was all the encouragement I needed to keep going.Although the course was challenging for everyone, those in teams faced the greatest challenge, since all five members needed to march the entire course and finish within 20 seconds of each other. Cooperation was paramount, forcing the strongest in the team to help the weakest.One team epitomized this cooperation when, near the end of the race, a teammate suffered heat exhaustion. Rather than accept disqualification, the rest of the team shouldered their stricken comrade the last few miles and finished as a team.As an individual, I was able to march at my pace; however, I did miss the camaraderie the teams enjoyed. Nonetheless, I finished strong, urged on by the enthusiasm of the crowd at the finish — particularly my husband and children — to a time of six hours and 48 minutes. It was good enough to place first in my age category and second among all civilian female heavy marchers. Of course, since only 13 civilian women competed in the heavy category, it probably makes more sense to focus on the experience rather than the competition.Once across the finish line, I hobbled to my family on horribly blistered feet. As we left the missile range, passing lines of people still marching, I thought about why I had marched. It wasn’t for the medal or the thrill of the race. I marched to honor the men and women — like my grandfather, uncles, and father — who fight to secure the freedoms we hold dear. And I marched because I needed a good dose of patriotism. At the Bataan Memorial Death March, that is exactly what I received.