Recently I had the privilege to take part in a 100lb rucksack march to support Camp Patriot, a charity working to assist disabled veterans. Camp Patriot focuses on lifting disabled vets up by reminding them of how much they are still capable of. They put on events such as climbing Mt. Rainier.
To prepare my pack, I used three 25 lb plates bolted to a board, the rest made up of lead-shot SCUBA weights. Standing with the pack for the first time, I felt unsure if I could complete the 3.1 mile course. I’m in pretty good shape for a 40 year old. I train in Judo and Jiu Jitsu three days a week, and my resting heart rate is regularly below 50 beats per minute. Yet still, walking for an hour with that much weight is not something I have a lot of experience with.
Sincerely doubting my ability to complete the march, I considered simply doing the course as a jogger, which the majority of participants were doing that day. However, I felt a need to do more. I had offered every person who attempted the 100 lb march a signed copy of Hammerhead and knew I’d feel like a quitter if I didn’t march with them. Also, I had recently watched Restrepo (which I wrote about here). In one scene a young man is firing a fifty cal high on an isolated mountain top—a fifty cal he surely had to carry up the mountain himself. It didn’t carry itself up. If those guys can climb a mountain with a fifty cal on their back in a place where they are seeing seven fire fights a day, I could surely do three flat miles.
On the day of the march, I was speaking with Bill Clark who is one of the founders of Camp Patriot. I had resigned myself to do the best I could, and I told Bill that I would rather try and fail. At 7:30 in the morning the ‘100 lb club’ geared up, starting out 30 minutes before the joggers began. In the first quarter mile, I held together pretty well, but in the second, I began to feel the pain.
The pack began to cut into my hips, and my shoulders felt as if the bones might crack. After what seemed another two miles a man standing beside the trail told me I had found the halfway point. The course had become hilly now. Uphill and downhill felt equally difficult. I became aware of only one sensation, that of having two rusty blades driven down behind my collar bones.
As I walked, I began to think more about Restrepo. What if the distant hills had snipers? What I was sincerely unsure if the trail ahead held IED’s? I was tired and in pain, but what if I had done this for the last four months, and had to do it for another eleven? There was no chilled water at the end of the trail in the Kandahar valley, no radio DJ’s, no finish line—just a stone seat, intermittent gunfire, and another day of backbreaking weight.
When I had been walking for 45 minutes or so, the morning had begun to grow hot, and I began tilting to my right. My legs didn’t hurt, but my heart was pounding. I felt light headed and somewhat dazed. I made my way up the hill, across the tilting parking lot, and slowly to the finish line, where someone helped me take my pack off.
I walked over to the side, among the packs laying in the grass—the men and women who had been freed from theirs standing in small groups talking. The quietness was still among them, and I think I understood why. I think, like mine, their thoughts were on those men and women who had carried weight on their backs in a war zone, or were still carrying weight. We had come there to support those who had been gravely injured in doing so. It was not a time for jokes and banter as much as it was a time for reverence to the real impact of war on lives, an impact measured in physical pain and more importantly mental anguish.
A recent Forbes article stated that almost once an hour a military veteran commits suicide. That is flat-out unacceptable. I have no other words to describe it. These men and women broke their backs for us. I for one am going to do what I can to get that weight off their backs now that they’re home.