By 1st Lt. Katrina Cheesman, 24th Special Operations Wing / Published October 28, 2015
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- After more than 800 miles on the road, 20 special tactics Airmen finished their journey to honor fallen teammates, crossing through the gate here with families of those killed in combat.
The march was held specifically for Capt. Matthew Roland, a special tactics officer, and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, a combat controller, who were killed in action Aug. 26 in Afghanistan.
“These men walked 812 miles, demonstrating to the vast majority of the southern part of America what our country values," said Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. "And that’s people who are willing to make sacrifices.”
The marchers walked day and night through five states to honor the fallen special operators, relaying the 812 miles in two-man teams.
Across the southern United States, communities and individuals took time to cheer on the marchers honoring the fallen with salutes and hands over hearts. Some community members even prepared home-cooked meals for the special tactics Airmen, who would each walk a total of 90 miles with a 50-pound assault pack on their back and a memorial baton in their hand.
While the marchers beat their anticipated timelines by completing their 12.6-mile legs in three hours instead of the expected four, this consistent speed didn’t come without its costs. Throughout the 10-day period, the marching Airmen experienced large blisters, muscle tears, heat exhaustion, and dehydration. One Airman completed his 90-plus miles with three broken ribs.
“We are pretty tired and beaten down, but it’s about telling the story of the guys who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said a special tactics combat controller about the march. “That’s why we do this: to remember the brothers we lost and show support to the families.”
For many of the Gold Star families and special tactics Airmen, it was a reunion. The Airmen had carried memorial batons engraved with the names of the fallen halfway across the country to walk alongside the families who lost their loved ones. This was not the first time they had done this; most of the families had attended all four of the memorial marches, the first of which took place in 2009.
“Who’s got Argel?” one family member shouted into the chaotic crowd of hugging people, searching for the person holding their son’s baton. Eventually, each Airman delivered his baton to the appropriate family, and the group walked the final mile together.
At the end of the march, the Airmen took part in a small ceremony. The batons were solemnly saluted and returned, one by one, to a waiting special tactics Airman as the names of the 19 teammates were called.
The batons were returned to their display case and will only be removed for another memorial march if a special tactics Airman is killed in action.
Finally, in keeping with a special tactics tradition, the Airmen formed up to complete memorial pushups.
“The fallen’s legacy will never die, because we will continue to honor their sacrifices and perpetuate their excellence,” Col. Wolfe Davidson, the 24th Special Operations Wing commander, said of the 19 special tactics Airmen killed in action since 9/11. “We aren’t ever going to quit talking about them. We will walk across this country to say, ‘We will never forget you.’