Experiencing the March…the Pain…Why They Do It…

I decided to get out there last night and do a leg with marchers and pararescuemen Chief Master Sergeant Lee Shaffer and Chief Master Sergeant Tony Negron so I could understand some of the sacrifice they put their bodies through when they are marching these long distances. (Keep in mind that I did NOT carry a 50-pound ruck sack!)

So…I pride myself in being pretty physically fit. I work out every day except Sunday. I’m close to maxing the Air Force PT test, a P90X junkie, an every-other day runner, and a mom of two little boys who keep me on my toes. With that being said, and with that confidence on my mind, I started the 12-mile march with a smile on my face and a skip in my step. We talked, we sang, and we remembered a lot of our fallen. It was dark and frankly a bit creepy walking near the edge of the road and hoping a wild dog doesn’t jump out and get me, or rather an alligator as we are in Louisiana now. I think we’ve got a bit more to go before we get to the really swampy areas though. But we had the police following us and up ahead of us with their lights flashing so that gave me a better sense of security. Besides, I’ve got two top pararescuemen with me, so what’s there to be worried about, right? That’s what I thought until Chief Shaffer informed me he had me walking closest to the woods so the wild dog would get me first…lol! Nah, I know they’d go Rambo on anything that tried to attack us!

I was doing great and thinking that the march wasn’t too bad. I was definitely cold and my hands were numb by mile four, but other than that, I was awesome!  Then I got to about mile six and an old IT-band injury decided to say hello. So now I’ve got a nagging injury. Then we’re up to about mile eight and my left hip is bothering me a bit with a little pain. I’m thinking, good grief, I’m young and fit, what the heck?

My feet are still ok at this point but I’m just thanking goodness sake that it’s 47 degrees out and dark as opposed to 85 degrees and sunny. That’s when the foot injuries start bothering the marchers. The blisters form on the feet and then they’re rubbed raw from the heat of the asphalt and the boots. We’ve got quite a few guys who are pushing through this pain now. But they always say this is nothing compared to what their fallen comrades went through and they grunt through the pain.  Our medics are constantly draining blisters and applying the moleskin.  There are some blisters and sores that just make your stomach turn.

I get to mile 10 and I’m searching up ahead for the next mile marker.  We have a vehicle that tracks each mile for us so when you can see the flashing yellow lights on that vehicle, it is a great feeling…almost to the next mile!  By mile 11, I’m ready to see the finish line!  I don’t complain and neither do the chiefs despite a heel injury that’s about rubbed down to the bone and a pinky toe that is so inflamed it’s numb.  We see the finish line and we all get pumped.  We start humming the Rocky theme and pushing ourselves a bit harder.  We reach the end and the chiefs lean over to get help taking the rucks off their backs and they help the next team get geared up for their leg.

I felt great.  I felt motivated.  I felt relieved.  I felt sad.  Sad that we even have to do this.  Sad we’ve lost so many incredible men who live to save lives and make this world a better place.  I don’t know why so many of the good ones are taken, but I do know that it only makes this team of special tactics Airmen stronger.  I know the resilience of this command and these men are incredible.  They know the risks of what they do and they know they are going to lose friends.  But they do it because they are some of the most selfless people in this world of ours.  They are first there…that others may live.  And they will always be there.

But they will never forget their fallen and they will never stop sacrificing for them.  I’m honored to tell their story and I’m honored to know them.

Long Day and Still Going Strong!

I think I fell asleep before I hit post on this…so posting now from last night!

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Evening all.  The teams are still marching strong.  They will march through the night as this is a 24-7 march.  The men we lost didn’t quit or give up and neither will these guys.  The climate can get a little rough if you can imagine carrying 50-lb ruck sacks and wearing military uniforms and boots.  But they didn’t get where they are by quitting when the going gets tough.  In fact, I think that simply motivates them more.  They are driven by their memories of their comrades who lost their lives and by the families they left behind.

And just as these men are marching their hearts out determined to not give up, our support staff who is with them every step of the way ensures that the teams don’t have to.  From medics to supply to logistical support, they keep things moving smoothly.  I was watching the supply folks today, who follow the teams with trucks full of water, gatorade and medical supplies, and they were doing a great job running back and forth to ensure the teams had water and cold towels for the back of their necks…not to mention sunblock.  It’s a bit hot and sunny here in Texas this week and after about 24 miles of open skies with no shade, the teams were feeling it!  And then I think of the blisters I get just from running a few miles.  The blisters after walking 12+ miles in boots with a 50-lb weight on my back, pretty nasty critters!

So, think about these guys walking the lonely streets tonight in Texas.  Think about the men they are honoring and remember their sacrifice, their ultimate sacrifice.

Support for our Heroes

I’m here at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and it’s past late but my mind is racing and I need to get some thoughts down.  I’ve been around some pretty incredible people since I’ve arrived at Air Force Special Operations Command in July. And now I’m about to embark on an adventure I won’t soon forget with 18 special operations Airmen who are trying very hard to preserve and honor the memory of their fallen comrades.

But, this Memorial March isn’t just about honoring the men, it’s also about educating the American people about the sacrifices these Airmen are willing to make on their behalf.  I don’t know how many of you know about the blood, sweat and tears it takes to become an Air Force Special Tactics Airmen. You can truly compare these men to Navy Seals and Army Green Berets.  In fact, these guys often work right alongside them.

I heard a great story the other day from a reporter.  He talked about the pararescuemen, or PJs, and the first time he truly understood how important they are.  He interviewed the father of a Marine.  The Marine was rescued by an Air Force Pararescueman and was in recovery in the hospital.  The Marine told his father all about the PJ and how amazed he was with the determination and bravery the PJ had to fly into extremely hostile environments to rescue the injured men and women on the battlefield. He told his Dad that if it wasn’t for that PJ, he wouldn’t have made it out at all.  Unfortunately the Marine ended up passing away but his Dad got some precious time with his son before he lost him. The reporter was in awe that a Marine thought so highly of this Air Force PJ.  He told me you know you’ve got to be some kind of special for the Marines to brag about you.

And just as incredible are the combat controllers, or CCT, the other special tactics specialty we’re honoring during the Memorial March. These are the men on the ground calling in air support.  They are constantly in harms way but I have yet to hear one complain about their job. Instead, they thrive on what they do.   If you haven’t read, there is an Airmen, Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, who will be presented the Air Force Cross on Oct. 27.  It is the highest honor that the Air Force can bestow. He is the fifth Airman to receive the cross and only the second who is a living recipient.  But he will be the first to tell you that there are many more like him.

These people are dedicated beyond words.  They are true heroes and I’m so proud to be a small part of their community and help them tell their story.

Speaking of telling their story, I’d like your help.  If you know a PJ or CCT, or have been saved by one, shoot me an email at afspecops@gmail.com and tell me about your experience as I’d love to post those stories in this blog.  And please, if you’re along our route, show up and give these men a strong handshake or pat on the back.  They’re worth every second of your time!

Marching in memory of our Air Force Special Operators

How would you remember someone you lost?

Losing a loved one, a friend, a comrade in arms is never easy.  And it’s particularly hard when that person loses his life protecting others and serving his country.  People die every day, and people mourn those deaths everyday.  I, myself, lost my Marine father just a couple of months ago at the young age of 62. No one knows why these things happen and I, for one, will never understand why the good guys have to be taken from us.

The good guys I’m talking about are those who sacrifice so much for the sake of their country and their family. They don’t hesitate for one second to take a bullet for a comrade. Just like Bruno Mars sings, they would catch a grenade for you, throw their hand on a blade for you, jump in front of a train for you… While Bruno is referring to an ex-girlfriend in the song, this can definitely be understood for the military member out there in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere in conflict.  No matter what people throughout the world and in our own country think of the U.S. military mission and why we are there, these good guys still take the grenade in defense of freedom, in support of country, in the name of the U.S. military and for the protection of our citizens and their own families. AND in today’s fight it’s not just for the U.S., it’s for freedom of the people in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

Why do these men and women do this?  Why do they put their lives on the line day in and day out?

I spent the last couple of months traveling to memorials and funerals in honor of three of these brave heroes. Tech. Sgt. John Brown, Tech. Sgt. Daniel Zerbe and Staff Sgt. Andy Harvell were taken too soon on August 6 when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.  They were on a mission, along with 30 other Americans to include 17 Navy Seals, to support another unit under enemy fire.  These men who perished all had families back home who loved them dearly. They all had friends who would have given up their own lives to save them.  They were part of a tight-nit group of special tactics Airmen whose sole mission was to save lives.

While Air Force Special Operators aren’t as well-known as the Navy Seals or the Green Berets because they call themselves the “quiet professionals,” they are the ones who are always “first there…that others may live.” These men didn’t boast about or even talk about their jobs but they lost countless blood, sweat and tears to become a special tactics Airman.  While I didn’t personally know them, I learned a lot about them during their services and I can tell you these men were exceptional.  They were heroes in every sense of the word and they were truly loved.

It wasn’t easy to lose these men but we will do our best to remember them.

On October 16, eighteen of these fallen airmen’s comrades will set out on an adventure in their name.  They will begin a 812-mile ruck march from Texas to Florida relaying through five states.  Marching in three-man teams, each team will walk about 144 miles carrying 50-pound ruck sacks and a commemorative baton engraved with a fallen special tactics Airman’s name.

I will travel alongside these men and try to capture the story of their adventure while they march in memory of their comrades and friends.

We are working on setting up a guest blogger e-mail so if we come through your town you can blog about your experience meeting the team!  Thanks so much for your interest!  Stay tuned!

Maj. Kristi Beckman
Maj. Kristi Beckman Chief of Outreach and Engagements Air Force Special Operations Command