2023 Bataan Death March, memorial and inspiration

  • Published
  • By SrA Tabitha Jackson and TSgt Noelle Skinner
  • 451st IS
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines. Due to exposure to the elements, disease, and lack of necessary supplies, tens of thousands of U.S and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines were forced to surrender after seven months and were taken as prisoners of war. In addition to being deprived of food, water, and medical supplies, they were forced to march 65 miles to confinement camps through the sweltering jungles. During the Bataan Death March, 1,000 Americans and 9,000 Filipino soldiers died. This event impacted New Mexico families in a big way. Out of their 1,816 Coast Artillery men, 829 never returned home.

The Bataan Memorial Death March began in 1989, sponsored by the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps at New Mexico State University. The march eventually joined the White Sands Missile Range and New Mexico National Guard in 1992 and moved to the White Sands Missile Range. Since its beginning, participation in the Bataan Memorial Death March has grown from 100 to 9,600 marchers, civilian and military, from all across the United States, as well as several foreign countries.

Captain Holly Ziegler and her husband Ben Ziegler participated in the grueling event in 2019 and found the experience rewarding.
"As we walked, it was so inspiring and motivating to see people of all ages, from all walks of life, gathered together to complete a grueling challenge. It was so great to see all of the encouragement from everyone participating in the event and the countless volunteers who offered their time to provide support to the runners, marchers, and walkers."
- SrA Allexis Cassidy

“On a whim, my husband and I participated in the march in 2019 and the experience changed my perspective on enduring hardship and challenges. We set off to complete the marathon just the two of us, but along the nearly 8-hour journey, we spoke with and observed countless people going through the same struggle and the challenge morphed into an experience of a lifetime that changed my outlook on overcoming obstacles as a collective,” said Ziegler. “My goal in setting up a 451st Intelligence Squadron team to participate in the 2023 Bataan Memorial Death March was to hopefully impart the same inspiration with my 451 IS family, to share the lesson that overcoming adversity is made easier when you’re surrounded by your comrades, friends, or family.”

She pitched the idea to create a team that would participate in the 26.2-mile ruck to her commander, Lt. Col. William Selber, in June 2022.
Selber greatly supported Ziegler’s initiative, remembering how, when he was a young, second lieutenant assigned to the 820th Security Forces Group, rucking was a part of the culture and occurred regularly.

When asked why he agreed to participate, Selber stated, “This race is a great way to establish culture and identity, sharing struggles and going through stuff together as a close-knit unit, supporting each other.” He added that rucking is “one of the best workouts you can do. It’s cardio, a complete body-strength workout, and very challenging.”

Subsequently, the Rucking Reapers, a five-member team, formed and prepared to participate in the 2023 Bataan Memorial Death March at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on March 19.

Selber wasn’t the only one Ziegler inspired to join. Tech. Sgt. Eckstein, who had lived in New Mexico for 10 years, always wanted to try rucking, and when he heard a group was being put together for this march, he joined up. Tech. Sgt. Hurt, fresh from a deployment, was pitched the idea by Ziegler and jumped at the challenge.

Hurt said, “After I got back, Capt Z got me into rucking and told me about the Bataan Death March. I came up with my master plan of getting my girlfriend on the team, training 6-mo together, finishing, and after the race, I would propose. Long story short, it happened, she said yes, and we're currently engaged. So, you could say the whole reason I did it was so that I could propose.”

Some participants, such as SrA Allexis Cassidy, joined because of the unique history and deep meaning behind the Bataan Death March, while others, such as Staff Sgt. Misty Younce, wanted to take the opportunity to travel and to ruck with others as a group.

No matter the motivations behind joining the Bataan Death March, a mutual interest in rucking inspired members from the 3rd IS, 31st IS, and 451st IS to step up to the challenge.  Younce, Cassidy, Hurt,   Eckstein, Selber, and even while deployed,   Ziegler, formed the team Rucking Reapers, a “co-ed, heavyweight military division” team.

“Rucking was one of the few athletic things I was good at, said Selber “Military should always have that competitive streak because we fight wars. Competition is important. As long as it’s done in a team environment, I think it’s a great thing for everybody.”

For Eckstein, rucking came up often, first when he was interested in Pararescue and then periodically throughout his career in a different AFSC. He would tell himself, “If they can do it, so can I.”

Cassidy saw rucking  an opportunity to spend time with friends outside of work and she stated, “I’ve loved it ever since. It’s a great way to get in cardio on days I don’t feel like running.”

Preparing for the 26.2-mile race, while carrying an extra 35 lbs. and navigating a challenging terrain that includes an elevation climb of approximately 1,315 ft, was no easy feat. Each member of the five-person team had to put in 28 weeks of intense training, including regularly running and rucking throughout the week and rucking on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance each week leading up to the march.

Everyone invested their personal time and discipline to conquer the training program for the competition. According to Eckstein, “There is no quick and easy solution, and the team has to put in the hard work.”

Despite the amount of effort needed to train for this event, Selber said, “We’ve come a long way from where we first started. I’m very proud.”

While training was long and difficult, it inspired those involved.

Eckstein stated that "The team was able to see their hard work pay off when they reached mile 18 and found they were keeping the same pace they had at the start of the ruck." A milestone that assured them they were ready for the upcoming Bataan ruck march.

During the training period, an opportunity to test the Rucking Reapers’ progress and performance presented itself through the Norwegian Foot March, an 18-mile ruck. By watching people ruck for the first time, and watching his teammates learn, Selber was inspired. He was also motivated by SrA Valeria Nunez from the 3rd IS, who “set the fastest female time, and even qualified under the men’s time.”

Hurt, explained that training and going on rucks has only made him want to do it more.

Cassidy learned that she is capable of more than she thought.   

“Training for this race has helped me realize that I can push myself a lot further than I ever would have imagined,” said Cassidy. “When I began training for the Bataan, I hoped to stick to the training and be consistent with rucking. My hopes are now just to complete the race with the team and finish it together.”

Hurt also learned that even “at the pace we go, I’m a lot better than I thought I would be.” He shared, “I was eager to start but nervous if I would be able to perform. The long training plan actually calmed my nerves and after doing long mileage, I’m 100% confident that I’ll finish with the team.”

On the other hand, Eckstein had complete confidence in the team’s ability to complete the Bataan Death March, despite the intense training. His mantra to the team throughout the process was, “putting one foot in front of the other.”

“The entire experience, so far, has been good due to the team’s good camaraderie,” Eckstein said. “The team is ready to get the ruck march conquered.”

On March 19, 2023, the Rucking Reapers finally faced their competition in the co-ed military heavy division category and crossed the finish line. In preparation for the 2023 Bataan Death March, the dedicated team of Airmen spent 262 hours and marched 1,049 miles. That equals the approximate distance between Augusta, Georgia to San Antonio, Texas.

“As a team, we put in countless hours to train for the Bataan Death March. To finally make it to the day where we completed the event was a surreal moment for me. Not only did our hard work and dedication lead us to the finish line, but also it prepared us for all of the challenges we faced along the way. Blisters, sore muscles, fatigue... you name it- we pretty much experienced it all at some point during those 26 miles,” Cassidy said. “As we walked, it was so inspiring and motivating to see people of all ages, from all walks of life, gathered together to complete a grueling challenge. It was so great to see all of the encouragement from everyone participating in the event and the countless volunteers who offered their time to provide support to the runners, marchers, and walkers.” 
Cassidy said during they march the took “… time along the way to remember the tens of thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers who were forced to become prisoners of war and take on the feat of marching 65 miles-under the most un-ideal and horrifying conditions imaginable over a stretch of a few days. For those that survived the march, it only meant an even harsher reality was waiting for them once they arrived at the POW confinement camps.”

Their dedication memorialized the souls lost in the original Bataan Death March, 81 years prior.