209 Mile Hike, Day 2: Moments Of Zen, More Pooping In Woods
Welp, Rucking For Raiders day 2 was yesterday, but between the sketchy internet of the boonies, a busy hiking schedule, and me accidentally falling asleep while trying to write this around 3am as a parade of bugs marched across my screen, you’re getting it on the start of day 3.
Speaking of day 3, this is the first day it’s realllly hit me, and all of us on Team 1, I think. After getting back from the last stretch around 2am, most of us ended up crashing in the van like sardines. I passed out mid paragraph & we all woke up in a panic this morning after hearing an animal howl. NROTC student Jacob Shake, who’d decided to sleep on the ground outside the van, had a new friend who wouldn’t stop ‘awooooooooooo’-ing in his face. Instead of making sure the dog is friendly, I race to grab my phone to take one of my classic terrible-quality photos.
Delightful, but – shit – we’d slept in and should have kicked off our next stretch 9 minutes ago. In a rush to meet up with the team who marched ahead of us, we drove off with SSgt. Jamie Bonalewitcz’s pants on the roof, wallet & all. I could not stop laughing, but quickly assessed no one else was feelin’ that vibe.
The bags under my eyes are reaching General Mattis levels, and my blisters look like they’ve been reinforced with an IV drip… but that’s today & I’ll get to that tonight. Let’s transport ourselves back to day 2 for a recap….
Our day 2 stretch started Wednesday morning around 12:30AM. Delirious, my group fell down a musical rabbit hole of country gals; Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Reba, etc…. And we couldn’t help but imagine the late Raiders, who we’re rucking in memory of, completely ripping us apart for it.
As Carrie Underwood crooned, I sidled up next to SSgt. Daniel Campbell, 28, the organizer of this trip. He’s a husband and father of five, a full time Social Science student at Auburn University, an active duty Marine in the MECEP program who helps run the NROTC program, and a way better person than me.
In the months leading up to this, he’s spent 30+ hours per week planning the logistics, fundraising, and PR for 40+ vets, Marines, friends and NROTC students to make it all 209 miles to Navarre, FL.
“It’s demanding as hell, but I never question if I should be doing it. I enjoy the amount of work I put into it because I know the end results. I’ve seen it grow so much, and it’s great to see these up & coming Marine officers (Auburn U. NROTC) share a sense of camaraderie they can’t get from a textbook,” said Campbell.
For him, it’s simply the right thing to do, and the reason is personal. He knew all but one of the ‘Raider 7′, the Marines who perished along with 3 National Guardsmen and a Corpsman in a black hawk crash off Navarre, FL in 2015. Only a year before he’d returned from Afghanistan with them.
As our headlights bounced off the trees ahead, he tells me about the men he admired, who were like brothers to him, and I can hear a strain in his voice & feel the weight of his ties to them. From NBC news:
Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, 26, from Warren, Michigan: A basketball player at Michigan’s Olivet College, Bawol enlisted in the Marine Corps after his freshman year. He served in Afghanistan as communications chief from October 2013 to June 2014. His decorations included the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
Staff Sgt. Trevor Blaylock, 29, from Lake Orion, Michigan: A varsity swimmer throughout high school, Blaylock entered the Marines after a year at community college, where he had a 3.7 GPA. He served as a mechanic at Camp Pendleton, California, in June 2006. He was deployed to Iraq as a mechanic and scout in 2008, and deployed to Afghanistan from November 2013 to June 2014. His decorations included the Navy and Marines Corps Commendation Medal with Valor, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and Combat Action ribbon.
Sgt. Liam Flynn, 33, from Queens, New York: Flynn was born in Reading, England, and moved to Queens, New York, in 2002. Four years later, he enlisted with the Marines. He deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 and again in 2013. His decorations included three Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medals with Valor, the Bronze Star with Valor and Combat Action Ribbon.
Staff Sgt. Kerry Kemp, 27, from Port Washington, Wisconsin: Kemp was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved to Wisconsin in tenth grade. He deployed to Al Asad, Iraq, in 2008 as a machine gunner, and to Afghanistan from November 2013 to June 2014. His awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor and Combat Action Ribbon.
Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, from Williamsburg, Virginia: Saunders was born in Bonn, Germany. He enlisted in the Marines in 1999 and served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. His decorations included the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Navy Marine Commendation Medal.
Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif, 26, from Holland, Michigan: Seif was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before his family moved to Michigan when he was in middle school. He enlisted in the Marines in 2006 and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his decorations was the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest military commendation for valor, which he was awarded just last week for trying to save a friend while coming under fire in Afghanistan.
Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III, 31, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey: Shaw was captain of the lacrosse team and student government president in high school. He graduated the Naval Academy in 2006 and accepted a commission as a Marine officer. He was deployed twice to Iraq and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, among other honors.
Campbell emphasized that this team in particular radiated a sense of camaraderie, unmatched by any other. They stood out in the best possible ways, so to him, making sure their legacy lives on isn’t a chore.
“People watch the news and see the headlines… ‘Marine in Afghanistan Killed’, or they see these terrible crashes that keep happening where military men & women die, and they think, ‘Oh, that’s terrible’. But that’s it. People don’t know their names, faces or what they’ve done, and then the news moves on and it’s forgotten.
That was my intent with the boots & photos at the start of day one, you know, ‘This is what 43 human beings who aren’t here anymore look like. It’s not just the man who is no longer in those boots. It’s the family, it’s anyone they ever met & had an impression on.’ And with men like that you know they’ve made an impression on a lot of people.”
When he showed up to Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) in 2009, there were less than 10 had been killed in action. Now there’s 43.
“Hopefully people who follow what we’ve done can make that recognition & connection to all 43 of these guys, can do that in the future whenever they hear about a service member in the future who’s fallen. And that the gold star families of this nation will cease to be forgotten.”
A good song comes on & our conversation shifts to other things (what’s your ‘death row’ meal? What President would you party in Vegas with?), and soon I fall back to pee in the woods, as a lady does. We hit the next checkpoint & pass out for a bit.
At sunrise, after getting yelled at by a grumpy cattle farmer who’s mad we’ve been sleeping on his (like, totally doo-doo) land, we start another leg of the trek towards Troy, AL.
We pass 1 Piggly Wiggly, 1 dead turtle, 3 dead squirrels and 9,324 Baptist churches. It’s getting toasty out so we stop in a shaded park in Troy, Alabama’s town square.
We then proceed to get stuck walking next to a garbage truck for about 3 blocks. Luckily I’m not hungover like the day before, or I would have ralphed. For the rest of the stretch there’s no more shade & we’re in an industrial area with big rigs blowing past us. (Some truckers honk their horns & everyone thinks it’s for all of us, but I know it’s just for me because I’m cruisin’ like a ‘Bama mama packin’ a donkin’ set of Georgia peaches.)
Two of Campbell’s friends, who’ve come in for the trip from Huntsville and D.C., are on our team. Jamie Bonalewitcz (MARSOC Comms guy, like Campbell) and Joshua Welch (fellow Marine & friends with Campbell since high school) keep things upbeat with crunchy jams & horrendous singing. For both it had been over 4+ years since they’d seen him, but they didn’t hesitate to come out for this.
“You get busy with life and next thing you know, five years have gone by. It’s good to catch up with Marine friends. You gotta slow the fuck down & make time for the fuckin’ shit that matters,” said resident wordsmith and showboat, Welch.
On our 3rd 7.5 mile hike of the day, we’re in the middle of nowhere in the hot sun when the gallon of iced coffee & Peanut MnMs I had for breakfast hits me like a ton of bricks.
I hop an old barbed-wire fence & speed walk over to a clump of pine trees looking like Squints from Sandlot before he pulls his big move to get Wendy Peffercorn.
Looking around, I realize it’s in view of a nice house, but it’s too late. As I drop a ‘lil food-baby weight I’m oddly giddy at the absurdity of it & run back to the group feeling like a new woman. My feet are destroyed, my hands are swollen like balloons, I’m sunburned to a crisp, and now I’m crapping on people’s lawns. I have truly hit the point where I am out of fucks to give. I am freeeeeeeee!
As the hike rolls on, we’re followed by horses & cute dogs, a trucker stops to give us ice cold water, and we’re done before we know it.
As Group 2 takes off, we ride into the town of Opp, Alabama & get po’boys, hot-dogs & burgers. We all agree it was some of the best food we’ve had in a minute. The staff comes out, asks what we’re up to, and ends up giving us all free ice cream. Now that I’m free, I house it with reckless abandon even though there’s still another 7.5 miles to go before day 2 is through. The others do the same with… enthusiasm.
As the sun sets I climb on top of the van & put my favorite playlist on. Fireflies flash across the field, the stars emerge, and the murmur of happy Marines bullshitting flows up to me from below. I have a mini moment of zen & pause to think about everything SSgt. Campbell had told me about why we’re doing this. Feeling a swell of gratitude, I’m on the verge of an emo-moment when I hear a loud, “Ohhhhhhhh fuck! Oh God, no, keep going, keep going!”
The guys are rolling each other’s cramps out before we kick off on the final stretch of day 2. One by one they scream out as the roller hits the sore spots, & a crowd gathers to enjoy it. Soon our rucks sacks are packed and blisters are wrapped, and then we’re off into the pitch black boonies together, on the road again.