HURLBURT FIELD — This past Sunday, 15 airmen lined up along the sidewalk in the early morning sun.
They read the names of their five fallen comrades, hoisted their 40-pound rucksacks onto their backs and took their first brisk steps.
Over 450 miles of winding road lay before them.
The men are marching day and night to Tampa, Fla., in remembrance of the five special operations airmen from Hulburt Field who were killed in action last year. They expect to arrive Friday.
They were in Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe on Monday, staying overnight at the Port Inn in Port St. Joe.
“We’re honoring our heroes step by step,” said Sgt. Deon McGowen, who organized the rucksack march. “It’s great today, tomorrow is going to be tough, Tuesday is going to be even harder.”
The men who were killed were the marchers’ friends, roommates and brothers-in-arms.
Mitch Sherman is marching for his best friend, Capt. Ryan Hall, who was killed at age 30 when his U-28A plane went down near Djibouti, Africa, on Feb. 18, 2012.
Shermansaid he’s known people who were killed during his career, but never anyone he was as close to as Hall.
“It’s been a real challenge,” Sherman said of the year since the crash. “It’s tough because we all have to move on, but it catches up with you every now and then.”
Three other special operations airmen, Capt. Nicholas Whitlock, 29, 1st Lt. Justin Wilkens, 26, and Senior Airman Julian Scholten, 26, were also killed in the crash. They were returning from a mission when the plane went down.
About a week later, on Feb. 28, 2012, another Hurlburt airman, Lt. Col. John Loftis, 44, was shot to death at his desk during an attack on the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Loftis’ wife, Holley, and his two daughters were there Sunday to see the marchers off.
“It means a lot to us that they would do this,” Holley said. “They have taken the time and taken the effort to remember the people who gave their lives for our country.”
The marchers are also raising money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of Special Ops servicemen who are killed in action.
Two Hurlburt airmen are en route to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of the effort.
By Sunday afternoon, they had raised over $8,000. They hope to reach $50,000 by the end of the march, McGowen said.
The men will march in a relay to Tampa; at least two will be on the road at all times. Each will likely cover at least 100 miles over the next five days.
They began training in October, walking six miles every Wednesday and eight to 12 every weekend.
Most have never done anything like it before.
“I’m not built for it really – I’m a pilot,” joked Tom Leyden, one of the marchers who is also a U-28 pilot and served with the men that died in the plane crash. “It’s going to be grueling, but it’s a great sacrifice to dedicate this to those five fallen.”
This is the second march Hurlburt airmen have made to Tampa. Last year, McGowen organized a similar event to honor his friends who died in a helicopter crash in 2011.
He is the only one returning for the march this year.
The marchers will end their journey at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, headquarters for all Special Operations forces.
They will march to a wall etched with the names of all the special operations servicemen who have been killed in action.
“You can rub your hand along the wall, for these guys who have fallen, and you know they gave the ultimate sacrifice,” McGowen said choking back tears before the marchers took off on Sunday. “That’s what’s going to get you through this.”
Chaplain Jonathan Hurt, of the 1st Special Operations Wing, said it was going to be a tough few days, but the men who are participating will never forget the miles they gave to those who were lost.
“With every step, with every strained muscle and every drop of sweat, we honor their sacrifices,” he said.
WANT TO HELP? To donate, find out more information and track the group’s march visit their Facebook page “Air Commando Ruckers” or their page at firstgiving.com under “Air Commando Ruck & Climb.”