March to remember: Airmen participate in Bataan memorial

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
The boots had to come off. Blisters, swelling - her size 10 boots became too tight for her feet, but she kept going. The medics had to use duct tape and other materials to keep her feet together, but she kept going. Her socks wore through, the sand stung her face, the sun drained her will ... but she kept going. 

Justine Adams and other members from Team Vandenberg fought the terrain and weather and completed the 19th annual Bataan Memorial Death March on March 30 at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. 

Completing the marathon, however, was not just about personal goals. 

"It's about honoring the human spirit," said Adams, a captain with the 614th Air and Space Operations Center. "There were people who survived much more than we endured yesterday. It really puts things in perspective, and blisters that you have may be not so bad." 

That perspective is what drove Adams, Chris Fernengel, Ethan Mattox, Pat Slaughter, Tony Alvarado and Justin Overdorff to represent Vandenberg in the memorial of the infamous Bataan Death March. 

It was during World War II that American and Filipino servicemembers were forced by the Japanese to march almost 70 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando in the Philippines. Deprived of adequate amounts of food and water, and subject to random aggression from their captors, more than 1,000 men died before reaching the prison camp. 

Participants in the memorial were reminded why they were there through signs and banners, as well as through the presence of survivors from that horrific event. 

"That was a key part of the opening ceremony," said Fernengel, a captain with the 1st Space Control Squadron. "A lot of the survivors were there and once the gun goes off, everyone doesn't just take off out of the gates. You actually shake all the survivors' hands." 

After paying their respects, the Airmen began the march joined by Chad Briggs, a captain from Holloman AFB, N.M., who had trained with the team while deployed to Vandenberg. That training included running nine miles in the sand wearing full uniforms and boots, hikes on trails, and runs on asphalt. None of that, though, prepared them for the final march. 

"We thought we did pretty good as far as preparation," said Fernengel, who also served as team captain. "But there is absolutely zero consistency (on the march).The thing that got me the most, was switching from hard-pack to asphalt to sand back to hard-pack to uphill to downhill to rolling hills." 

It was nine hours into the 26.2 mile march that Adams had to stop at a first aid tent. There the medics did what they could, taking care of the swelling and blisters on her feet. By that time, almost 300 people had been told they could not finish the march due to a variety of injuries. Adams, however, was determined. She finished all but three miles of the march in her socks. 

"Seeing other people with much more serious conditions I think is what drove me to finish," Adams said. "Just seeing double amputees doing this and gritting through it, really makes you have things in perspective." 

They not only saw wounded veterans pushing through the march. There was a 75-year-old man with severe scoliosis running his 366th marathon; an older gentleman with a sign on his backpack declaring he was running in memory of his brother who died in the original march; and a small female Soldier who ran with a pack that was three-fourths her body size. 

So they, too, carried on, tired and sore, and finished the march. While it took the Vandenberg team more than nine hours to finish, some people finished after 11 hours. The marathon continued until all those who could finish did finish. 

"It was certainly about perseverance," Adams said. "Definitely not your typical marathon." 

These Vandenberg Airmen did persevere - they persevered for themselves, for the Air Force and in memory of those who served before. 

"It was very emotional at the end," said Mattox, who is a captain with the 1st SPCS. "Just getting to the end and seeing all the people there at the finish and just you knowing that you finally finished this and pushed yourself through ... we finished with a tear in our eyes."