Around noon on Wednesday, July 18, give or take an hour, the Marine Raider Memorial March quietly crossed the border into Georgia with little fanfare. Their mission was simple, albeit heartfelt – to symbolically bring home the Marines lost from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune when a KC-130 crashed in Mississippi on July 10, 2017.
They're about halfway home, founder and organizer Nathan Harris said from the road. The 11-day, 900-mile trek honors the seven members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command 2d Raiders Battalion based out of Camp Lejeune along with nine members of the Marine Aerial Refueling Squadron 452 from Newburgh, NY, who lost their lives in the tragic accident.
A team of about 30 Marine Raiders and Special Amphibious Recon Navy Corpsmen joined forces with the wives of Camp Lejeune's seven lost heroes to start the trek in Itta Bena, Miss. On their backs they are each carrying 45 pounds of soil from the crash site that will be used in planting a memorial tree aboard Camp Lejeune. In addition to the soil, they carry the Marine Raider flag and a paddle, which is carved and wrapped by Raiders in honor of the men who perished.
It is physically taxing, said Harris, noting that the feet, legs and hips make up the bulk of injuries along the way. The July heat is also a factor.
"Pretty much everyone walking has a blister of some type," he said. "Walking up and down these hills, it's like taking a cheese grater to your feet over time."
It's also been, as one would expect, an emotional journey.
"Emotionally, it is really more of a healing process," said Harris. "Where, if we weren't doing this ruck march, would we be on the anniversary of their death. There would have been an event memorializing the crash. Why would you want to go to a second funeral a year later? This, gives them a chance to celebrate their husband's lives, gives them a chance to share the joy they brought during the short time they were on this earth and to tell stories about them."
The march across the country is being handled like a long relay race, with 10 teams of two to four people taking on an 8-mile leg per day. Once done with their stretch of the race, the teams are taken ahead to hotels where they are allowed to rest and are tended to by volunteer medical personnel. So far, the crew is averaging about 89 miles a day.
"I'm incredibly proud of these women and what they're doing with the ruck march," Harris said. "This is something that typically every Marine has done in one shape or form, but it's not something for everyone. It's hard work. It's not easy to put a lot of weight on your body and go the distance and these women have been doing a great job.
"Everyone's heart is in this though," he continued. "We are all in on the mission of bringing our brothers home."
The brothers lost in Mississippi include, from Camp Lejeune: Staff Sgt. Robert Cox, 28; Staff Sgt. William Kundrat, 33; Sgt. Chad Jenson, 25; Sgt. Talon Leach, 27; Sgt. Joseph Murray, 26; Sgt. Dietrich Schmieman, 26; and Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Ryan Lohrey, 30. Killed in crash from Newburgh were: Maj. Caine Goyette, 41; Capt. Sean Elliott, 30; Gunnery Sgt. Mark Hopkins, 34; Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Johnson, 45; Staff Sgt. Joshua Snowden, 31; Sgt. Julian Kevianne, 31; Sgt. Owen Lennon, 26; Cpl. Daniel Baldassare, 20 and Cpl. Collin Schaaff, 22.
Marching through towns both large and small has given everyone a fresh perspective.
"I think the biggest thing that you notice on the ground is that our country isn't as divided as they want you to believe," said Harris. "At work you're a family, but you go home and you turn on the TV news or you look on Facebook and you see so much anger. Everyone is yelling at each other. You think it would be worse out here meeting people, but it's the opposite. Every single person that we've interacted with has been so wonderful. I've never seen a more united country – different races, different creeds, different background – I see them all coming together to show their support for these ladies and for their husbands all hours of the day and night. It can be 1pm in the afternoon and 110° outside or 3am in the morning and raining and they're there to greet us. That means the world to these Gold Star family members who have lost a loved one. It makes them feel like people care about the sacrifice that their husbands made."
Funds raised during the march will benefit the Brothers in Arms Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in 2009 that provides financial assistance to sick, injured and fallen Special Operations Marines, Sailors and their families. Learn more, and donate, at brothersinarmsfoundation.org.
With just seven days left to go, Harris said they are honoring one of the fallen soldiers per day.
"Today, the 18th is Staff Sgt. William Kundrat. Today, we march for him and we want people to see who he was as a person and not as a number, not just a casualty."
In a post on the ruck's Facebook page, William "Billy" Kundrat's wife Ashley notes: "This ruck means that we are coming from a place of fire and ashes (the crash site) and rising up through it to come all the way home. We may be physically and emotionally broken at times but we will never give up. We will bring our husbands, friends, family home. These guys will live forever through us. Stories will be told and passed down for decades. We are all a family and we will continue to stand alongside one another forever honoring all the brave men from Yanky 72."
Learn more about the Memorial March, visit www.ruckingraiders.com or on Facebook at Marine Raider Memorial March. The website, which is updated regularly, has an interactive map so people can see exactly where the group is along their route. A ceremony is planned for July 27 aboard Camp Lejeune.