After more than 800 miles on the road, 20 Special Tactics Airmen finished their journey to honor fallen teammates, crossing through the gates of Hurlburt Field with families of those Special Tactics Airmen killed in combat.
The march was held specifically for Capt. Matthew Roland, special tactics officer, and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, combat controller, who were killed in action, Aug. 26, 2015, Afghanistan.
“These men walked 812 miles across the Gulf Coast, demonstrating to America what our country values,” said Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “And that’s people who are willing to make sacrifices.”
The marchers walked day and night through five states to honor the fallen special operators who gave their lives in service to their country, relaying the 812 miles in two-man teams.
Across the journey, communities and individuals took time to cheer on the marchers, and honored the fallen with salutes and hands over hearts. Some community members even prepared home-cooked meals for the Special Tactics Airmen, who would walk a total of 90 miles with a 50-pound assault pack on their back, and a memorial baton in their hand.
While the marchers blew through anticipated timelines by completing their 12.6 mile-legs in three hours instead of the expected four, this consistent speed didn’t come without its costs. Throughout the ten-day period, they experienced large blisters, muscle tears, heat exhaustion and dehydration. One Special Tactics Airmen completed his 90-plus miles with three broken ribs.
“We are pretty tired and beat down, but it’s about telling the story of the guys who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said a Special Tactics combat controller about the march. “That’s why we do this: to remember the brothers we lost and show support to the families.”
For many of the Gold Star families and Special Tactics Airmen, it was a reunion. The ST Airmen had carried memorial batons engraved with the names of the fallen hallway across the country to walk alongside the families who lost their loved ones. This was not the first time they had done this; most of the families had attended all four of the memorial marches, which first occurred in 2009.
“Who’s got Argel?” one family member shouted into the chaotic crowd of hugging people, searching for the person holding their son’s baton. Eventually, the batons and their safekeepers found their way to the right family. Then the Airmen, who had so diligently carried it over 800 miles, handed it over to the family and walked the last mile with them.
At the end of the final mile, the Airmen took part in a small ceremony. The batons were solemnly saluted and returned, one by one, to a waiting Special Tactics Airmen, as the names of the 19 teammates were called.
The batons will be returned to their display case in memory of the fallen, and will only be removed for a memorial march if another Special Tactics Airmen is killed in action.
Then, as tradition in the Special Tactics community, all Airmen formed up to complete memorial pushups, honoring teamwork, fallen comrades, and Roland and Sibley.
“The fallen’s legacy will never die, because we will continue to honor their sacrifices and perpetuate their excellence,” said Col. Wolfe Davidson, 24th Special Operations Wing commander, of the 19 Special Tactics Airmen killed in action since 9/11. “We aren’t ever going to quit talking about them. We will walk across this country to say, ‘we will never forget you.’”