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View from the Hill – WKU ROTC participating in Bataan Memorial Death March

Some WKU ROTC cadets are training for the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico.  Amy Bingham has more on the 26.2 mile marathon in the middle of the desert in this week’s View from the Hill.

(The following story was written by Rachel Tolliver, U.S. Army Cadet Command)

FORT KNOX, Ky. — A marathon is 26.2 miles. And sometimes a marathon can seem like a death march–but not really.

If you want to know what a death march is really like, the 70,000 service men and women captured by Japanese forces during World War II can tell you. They were part of the Bataan Death March–a forced march through 70 miles of Philippine jungle, with very little to eat or drink.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Bataan Memorial Death March–a marathon–held in White Sands, N.M., to honor those men and women, and will be held the weekend of March 21-23.

Of the 1,816 New Mexico National Guard troops captured–most were with the 200th Coastal Artillery Regiment–only 987 survived.

U.S. Army ROTC Cadets have spent months preparing for the annual marathon–preparations that include raising funds for travel and physical training. They could certainly run the marathon but many walk the 26.2 miles, which doesn’t seem like much until they put on a 35-pound pack.

Even for those who don’t wear the pack, they walk the same route over hills climbing to 1,650 feet at the steepest point, in the hot sun and wind and through ankle-deep sand that makes the marathon seem longer than it is. And yet, it doesn’t even remotely compare to what the men and women of Bataan had to endure.

Cadets like Stephen Velisek, an accounting and finance major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, have participated in the event before and like most of the participants who come here, he said the first time he did it he was seeking a challenge.

“But after the experience and the event, I understood the true meaning of Bataan and now enjoy honoring the survivors as well,” Velisek said. “This happens during our spring break time-frame. But I am doing this because I enjoy the event and everything behind it–the experience is incomparable.”

The “everything behind it” to which Velisek referred includes a seminar about the actual Bataan Death March and how those forces came to be in Bataan. Survivors are on hand to discuss their experiences and explain the hardships and they also see the participants off at the start line and welcome them back at the finish. In short, the weekend is about educating the public on Bataan and the sacrifices our troops made there, and honoring those service men and women.

Like Velisek, the BMDM is also on Cadets Tanner Reinhart and Alessandra Angueira’s spring-break travel list. Reinhart, who is majoring in international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he wanted to challenge himself physically and mentally as part of honoring the men and women who were force-marched through the Philippine jungle.

“I wanted to do something that I could look back on and be proud that I accomplished with my teammates–something worthwhile and meaningful,” Reinhart said. “I expect that it will be one of the most humbling experiences of my life.”

Angueira said participation for her was about honoring the men and women who sacrificed during that time and also about the opportunity to build camaraderie.

“Going to the Bataan is better for me physically,” Angueira explained. “It has much more meaning, and at the end of the day, I am going to do something fun with my friends. It just happens to be a 26-mile ruck march with 35 pounds on my back.”

Although the event is a competition–the Bataan is regarded as one of the toughest marathons in which to compete–Cadet Zach Trevathan, a communications and journalism major at the University of New Mexico, said it’s more about the camaraderie and supporting the people around him so everyone makes it.

“I have been to the event before and I was a member of a unit in the New Mexico National Guard,” explained Trevathan. “Both of (those experiences) did a great job explaining the history and struggle that Bataan serves to commemorate.”

And that lesson of camaraderie and support is what Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Black hopes his Cadets take away from a weekend in the desert.

As a military science instructor at WKU, Black knows a thing or two about military history. In addition to reading about it, he teaches lessons that can be learned from events such as WWII and Bataan.

“I personally find it to be a great challenge and an honor to participate (in the march) and to pay homage to the Soldiers that sacrificed so much,” Black said. “Last year I was not aware of how much I would gain from participating but I took away so much more than I could ever imagine.”

To explain, Black said his first marathon was more about checking a to-do box. He and some friends had heard about Bataan but had never gotten around to doing it–until last year.

“I was expecting something tough, something I could check off my bucket list–an event I could do,” Black said. “Then when we got there it wasn’t just a military event, it was a community event and there a lot of people from all over the U.S. and the world there. And there were a number of Bataan survivors–those who are left, and there aren’t many of them now. It’s just a powerful experience to go through.”

In meeting the survivors and hearing of their experiences Black said some of the things they talked about were the hardships, and how some guards were compassionate and some were brutal. But they also talked about the bond.

“(The survivors) talk about drawing power from each other, because if they had been alone they couldn’t have survived Bataan by themselves,” he said. “And that’s what I want the Cadets to learn. The lesson from their talks is that no matter how good someone is at any level, you have people from your left and right who have different strengths and who are there to help you. You can’t go through everything alone and having other people with you makes a world of difference.”

Cadets and cadre at New Mexico State University will also participate in the marathon but they have an additional responsibility: they are an event partner, a union that started in 1989 when the unit started the first BMDM to honor New Mexico’s own.

“We have a couple of teams competing,” said Maj. Paul Saiz, the unit’s executive officer. “But it’s more than that for us–we are honoring our own. We host a seminar on the death march during the weekend events, provide escorts for the survivors, and we have Cadets to man the water stations along the route when the marathon starts.”

Saiz also said they provide the color guard, a cannon for the opening ceremony and support the barbecue that is held in conjunction with the event.

But Black’s WKU ROTC Cadets are also honoring their own: the men of the Kentucky National Guard 38th Tank Company, known as the Harrodsburg Heroes, who were also captured and forced into the Bataan Death March. Of the 67 Kentucky tankers captured, only 37 made it home. Today that company is part of the 103rd Brigade Support Battalion, 138th Fires Brigade.

“Last year I did the marathon for myself, but this year I know more,” Black added. “This year I represent the school I work at in Kentucky, and the Kentucky National Guard has a deep history with Bataan too. So, taking these (guardsman) and their past with us–it’s huge to be representing their memory.”

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