Front & Center with the 4th Annual Air Commando Ruck Marchers

Shane, JR, and Heidi

Shane, JR, and Heidi 2015

The 4th Annual Air Commando Ruck March started on Sunday (March 15, 2015). Eleven airmen and their support team covering 450 miles – on foot – in less than a week. They will ruck, carrying 50 lb packs, from MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, to Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle, in memory of the fallen and to raise money for the families who must go on without them.

When I saw they would be rucking relatively close to my house, I decided I had to meet them. So, I got up early before work and drove the 45 minutes to where they’d spent the night in the Chiefland Firehouse and interviewed three of the team – JR and Shane, who ruck as a pair, and Heidi, their medic. Here is what I learned:

All of the airmen participating in the ruck are attached to Air Force Special Operations Command. However, since this isn’t an officially sanctioned Air Force event, each airman has chosen to take leave in order to participate. They work in teams – 3 teams of three and 1 team of two – trading off amongst the team members when they have completed their miles. Each team covers 12 miles in three hours, one individual rucking at a time and carrying the American flag. The teams alternate until they have covered the 75 or so miles needed for that day. At night, they beddown in whichever local facility – fire station, courthouse, American Legion – has been generous enough to host them for the evening. They wake the next morning bleary-eyed but determined to carry on despite their blistered feet and aching backs – which, JR and Shane tell me, is not a burden so much as a reminder that they are lucky enough to be here, alive, continuing on, and the least they can endure for their fallen comrades.

This event has been planned for months and as the date got closer, the original team of sixteen ruckers shrunk to eleven. In a tragic coincidence, this is the same number of servicemembers, 4 Louisiana National Guardsmen and 7 Marines, who died in a helicopter crash during a training accident last week. In tribute, each member of the Air Commando team this year is carrying a flag in his/her ruck, which will be placed in shadowboxes and presented to the families of those 11 fallen servicemembers.

When I asked if they were getting a lot of support from the communities they passed through, they said, “Oh, yes.” JR told me that, last year, an elderly woman stood on the side of the road, hand over her heart as she watched him hike the last mile of that leg, and then she pushed $150 into his hand. This year, a family popped a tent and camped out along the route, their small son waiting for the ruckers with a banana in one hand and a Gatorade in the other. Shane tells me that these are just a few of the individuals who have greeted them along the way, that people have been lining up along the route to thank them for their service or cheer them on.

Last year they raised roughly $17,000 from their march. This year they hope to raise $30,000, and so far, including the $25 I just donated, they are up to $10,605. This money will be divided between the Air Commando Association, which cares for the needs and honors the memories of active duty and retired members of the Special Operations community, maintains an Air Commando Museum, and provides scholarships to AFJROTC cadets, and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which cares for special operators and their families through scholarships, immediate financial assistance, counseling services and other family services.

If you want to get involved, you can donate here. You can follow the ruckers progress on the Air Commando Ruckers FB page. And, if you live in Florida, you can come out and cheer them on as they ruck the last legs across the Florida panhandle over the next two days.

A big thank you to JR, Shane, and Heidi for letting me interview you. It was a pleasure to be in the company of such dedicated individuals.

Note: Any mistakes in the reporting of their comments are mine and can be blamed on a lack of coffee.

© 2015, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.

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