Alamogordo, N.M. -- Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew, the Sergeant Major of Training and Education Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., reflects on his completion of the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, held at White Sands Missile Range,New Mexico. He and Maj. Gen. James W. Lukeman, Commanding General of TECOM, will be taking part in this year's memorial event in March. LeHew earned the Navy Cross for his actions as a gunnery sergeant during Operation Iraqi Freedom in March of 2003.
On March 23, 2014, I had the incredible honor of being one of only a handful of active duty Marines to participate in the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March held at White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, N.M. The 26.2-mile event is conducted annually in honor of the individuals who survived, and those who gave their lives during the barbaric death march at the hands of the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942.
Of the 6,200 participants who began the march at 7 a.m. on a cold and extremely windy desert morning, fewer than 20 were uniformed active duty or reserve U.S. Marines. Most were affiliated with the Army or Air Force with a spattering of Navy and Coast Guard personnel as well. There were foreign militaries represented. Reserve Officer’s Training Corps units from around the nation were present. A lot of the participants were civilians. There was a strong civilian Marine showing at the event and I could always count on a shout of "Oohrah!" or "Semper Fi!" somewhere along the entire route to raise the spirits.
The best way to explain the march would be to imagine the Marine Corps, Boston, New York City or Los Angeles marathons, all the same distance at 26.2 miles, but put it in the middle of the desert and tie the theme of it to a historically significant event in our nation's past. Next, add in blazing sun, tall mountains and shifting sand along with vast stretches of open scrub brush trails which transform back into burning sections of pavement for miles at a time all along the course.
One section of the course stretches uphill for 10 straight miles and another; even more imposing section is a 3-mile long, 6-inch deep sand pit that is all uphill as well. Then, after you take all of that in, finally, military category participants run the course wearing a full military combat uniform, boots, pack along with battle gear and you have the Bataan Memorial Death March. This is definitely not an event that for the weak of heart, spirit, mind or body.
I embarked on the journey to run this course years ago, but as with everything in life, competing interests and more notably, military commitments and deployments always seemed to deter my attempts. Believe me, as a 44-year-old sergeant major running it, at roughly the 12-mile mark, I most certainly wished I attempted this earlier in my career.
As the Training and Education Command Sergeant Major for the Marine Corps, I made it my mission to take on this challenge to highlight this event for the rest of the Marine Corps who, for the most part does not know it even exists. I am most certain that, if more Marines knew about this and understood the historical significance of this event in the annals of our own history, it would attract more than 20 Marines to represent our Corps.
This is an event that was made for Marines and gets to the root of the very ethos and core of who we are as Marines. A notable fact that is largely lost to history is that, of all of the individuals who endured Bataan in 1942, not a single Marine was lost or succumbed to death during the entire forced march into captivity. History records this as testament to the basic training and discipline the Marine Corps instilled in its personnel during this period, the same testament that holds true in creating today's Marines.
Our tradition of never leaving a fallen comrade behind can be attributed to the Marines who endured this hellish march more than 72 years ago, carrying their starved and wounded brothers in their arms all along the way, allowing none to fall by the wayside to be executed by the Japanese. The major drawing force to participate in this event is to honor that legacy. That, above all else, is the major difference in all other marathon events of this distance. To know you are marching to honor and ensure that the sacrifices of so many who came before you are not forgotten.
From the moment the cannons fire to announce that the march has begun, to the hundreds of people encircling the finish line 26.2 miles later who cheer on the participants as they complete the march, every aspect of this race exudes a brother and sisterhood like no other event on this scale. Hundreds of support personnel and volunteers stretch along the entire course, ensuring everything is conducted safely. Unlike the original death march, there are plenty of water stations, sports drinks and fresh fruit along the route.
The group however, that is the true rock stars of the event are the Bataan Survivors and veterans who are interspersed throughout the course, providing that boost of motivation needed to go the next mile.
Imagining the horrors these men endured during that WWII march and their subsequent time in captivity during the remainder of the war was all the motivation needed to know that, no matter how you physically or mentally felt throughout this day, it paled in comparison to what these men endured. They are truly "The Greatest Generation," indeed.
As Marines, we can never forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before and built the legacy that we proudly carry on today.
A scant 26.2 miles and several hours later it was all over. The sense of pride and honor in accomplishment I felt as I crossed the finish line was only bested by the sound of someone yelling "Sgt. Maj. LeHew! It's me, Doc!"
As I turned around I saw a young Navy corpsman running toward me and with a hand clasp, followed by a big hug he said excitedly "I knew it was you!" For that brief moment, all the pain I was feeling went away and was immediately replaced with the feeling of brotherhood that I mentioned earlier.
"I'm sorry I had to pass you right at the finish line," he said with a smile on his face, "but I couldn't let an old guy like you beat me!"
"Yes, Devil Doc, I suppose you did cross the finish line just ahead of me," I said, "wearing half the amount of gear and at half my age..."
We had a good laugh, wished each other the best and parted ways with smiles on our faces. As I limped away, my body once again feeling every mile of the march, I took solace in the fact that even in age alone, I could be in a position that day to inspire a young man to give a little bit more than he thought he had at the end, just like the survivors of Bataan had done to inspire me.
I could barely move in the days following the event. The bottoms of my feet were on fire, as were my muscles. My toenails were black and blue, and some had already begun to fall off. Yet, even through all this, the sense of pride in accomplishment in completion of this event was euphoric. More importantly however, was the feeling of pride I had in representing our present day Corps of Marines who by all accounts are just as great as the generations of Marines who have come before.
The 26th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, on March 22, 2015, will be here before you know it. Tragically, however, the survivors of this storied event in history will not. Last year, just four veterans of the march attended. The event was preceded that morning by a final roll call of men who have given their last full measure over the past year.
I was honored to shake the hands of these veterans and watch their eyes light up when they saw a man standing in front of them wearing the full battle uniform of a United States Marine. They were honored and remembered.
It is in their honor we continue to show the world the indomitable spirit of the Corps. That unbreakable bond we have with all those from our past who have taken up arms to defend this great nation, coupled with the unwavering commitment of present day Marines to continue to do honor by our solemn pledge to Corps and Country. This is the benchmark for all that is still right and good about our nation today and will continue to be the driving force behind our nation’s success in the future.
Information on the 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March can be found at www.bataanmarch.com. Take up the challenge. I hope to see you there.