One step at a time – it’s a pretty common motto, but this week, it’s literally what will get 15 Marines and a few others through a 770-mile ruck march to honor the lives of 11 service members lost during a training mission one year ago.
It’s been 365 days since seven Special Operations Command Marines and four Louisiana National Guardsmen lost their lives in a Black Hawk crash off the coast of Navarre, Florida. It’s an anniversary that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Despite heavy rain, hundreds of people came out for a public ceremony on March 10, the crash anniversary, to honor the seven Marines, who are now known as the Raider 7: Capt. Stanford Shaw III, Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders, Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, Staff Sgt. Kerry Kemp, Staff Sgt. Trevor Blaylock and Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif.
The rain may have marred that somber moment, but it didn’t ruin a more uplifting one the next day. During another ceremony unveiling a yet-to-be-completed permanent memorial to the fallen crew, the sun came out just in time for the marchers – 15 Marines and three family members – to begin their 770-mile journey that will take them from the Navarre crash site all the way to North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, where the Raider 7 were based.
For the next 10 days, the ruckers will walk in seven teams and trade off every 10-11 miles – that’s about 110 miles each – until they get there. They’ll do some stretching, eating and sleeping in between, as well as a lot of foot repair, because seriously – just think about what 110 miles will do to your feet.
How They’ll Get Through It
But as Marines always do, they’ve come prepared. Nathan Harris, the founder and director of the Marine Raider Memorial March, said he has been walking 20 miles to and from work each day, losing toenails in the process but also working out pacing and recovery times. Others, like Kemp’s close friend, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Justin Bentley, and Flynn’s widow, Destiny Flynn, have been doing their own mini-rucks as a warm-up.
“It was just trying to get emotionally ready for it [that was the hardest],” said Flynn, who was nervous but excited to be part of something so special. “I just really want to finish it and be able to walk after the 10 days.”
“The act of pushing through the pain – that’s the biggest mental hurdle we’ll be overcoming,” Harris said. “Our feet will literally be bleeding. We’ll be putting our boots on with bandages over our feet continuing to walk.”
But it’s a small sacrifice compared to what the Raider 7 gave, and the ruckers know that.
“I’m just really glad I have the chance to do this – to be here for the guys and for the families and the community. It’s a tremendous honor,” said a rucker named Daniel who had done tours overseas with the Raider 7. “They were the ultimate professionals. They were the ones that everyone looked to. They made us realize that maybe we should try a little harder.”
“Kerry [Kemp] was definitely a man’s man,” Bentley remembered of his friend. “He was one of the few guys you would consider a perfect Marine. Anything he set his mind to, he absolutely accomplished.”
An Outpouring of Support
The outpouring of love from the Navarre and military community has astounded many of the ruckers.
“It’s completely overwhelming – seeing what the community has done as far as donating, helping and supporting. We’ve got family members who are letting us stay in their houses, cooking us breakfast. It’s just absolutely phenomenal,” Bentley said.
While the focus might be on the ruckers this week, they want the real focus to be on the families of the 11 men who died – many of whom have little ones that will need the reminder of who their daddies were when they grow up.
“The sting does not go away. Every time they hear a helicopter or see a guy in uniform, something will trigger that feeling of loss, and I want people to remember that has forever changed these families,” Staff Sgt. Harris said.
“I’m hoping along the way that we rally a lot of the community, and they see what the Raiders were all about and that the Raider 7 is not forgotten,” Bentley said.
When they reach Camp Lejeune on March 21, the ruckers will present a paddle recovered in the crash to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion – a name recently designated to them that was revived from a Marine command created during World War II.
It’s going to be a long couple of days of back pain, foot sores, marching and reflection, but the ruckers will get there, and they’ll do it with their loved ones smiling down on them.
“Oh, most definitely. He’s here with us now,” Flynn said of her husband, smiling herself.
We’ll be following them throughout the journey, so check back with us to see how they’re doing. And if you’re along their route and see them coming, be sure to show your support!
By Katie Lange