The home stretch of a special 770-mile journey will be coming through Wilmington this weekend.
A group of members of the United States Marine Raiders Regiment, an elite force that forms a large component of the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), will be marching through the heart of Wilmington on their way from Florida to their final destination of Camp Lejeune.
Staff Sgt. Nathan Harris, an instructor at the Marine Special Operations School at Camp Lejeune, said he began planning this on March 11 of last year, the day after seven Raiders, along with four Louisiana National Guardsmen, were killed in a helicopter crash near the Florida Panhandle beach town of Navarre.
Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III, Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders, and Staff Sgts. Marcus Bawol, Trevor Blaylock, Liam Flynn, Kerry Kemp and Andrew C. Seif, all stationed at Camp Lejeune, were on board the Black Hawk UH-60 when it went down into the water during training in bad weather conditions.
“They were my friends,” said Harris. “This journey is to signify bringing those Marines home.”
The journey started March 11 in Navarre, not far from the crash site. A total of 19 ruckers, as the marchers call themselves, have been split into seven teams, one for each of the Raiders killed that night. Each team walks an 11-mile leg before switching off, and by the time the 770-mile trek is completed on March 21, each person will have walked 110 miles.
“Of course it’s tiring, but we just keep going,” said Harris, saying team members have suffered blisters, swollen joints and weak knees. “Everyone has kept true to the event. They know we have to bring these Marines home.”
In addition to carrying rucksacks on their back, the marchers carry a flag that’s based off the patch of the original Marine Raiders, who served in World War II (this new incarnation of the Raiders was formed in 2006). They also carry a very special item.
“We’ve got a paddle, which is the only thing recovered in one piece from the crash site,” said Harris.
Their route has taken them from Navarre, through Panama City and Tallahassee in Florida, up Highway 84 in Georgia and to Highway 17, which brought them north through Charleston, South Carolina last night. Along the way, the marchers, which also includes the wife and fiance of two of the men killed, were joined by United States airmen, sailors, soldiers and other Marines.
“The only people we haven’t had join us are Coasties,” said Harris, referring to members of the United States Coast Guard.
They were originally supposed to come through Wilmington on Friday night, but delays, of the good kind, have pushed their schedule back a little.
“We got a lot more attention than we thought we would,” Harris said. “People have stood by the side of the road waiting several hours, waiting for us, even if we got to their area in the middle of the night.”
“You can’t say no to the grandmas that want to kiss and hug you and the people that want to shake your hand and take pictures with you. You just can’t. It’s great,” Harris continued. “In the smaller towns especially, that’s where we’ve seen the most support.”
Support has come in other forms, too. Local law enforcement agencies have provided them with escorts at the front and back of their convoy as they walk through towns and on the highways, ensuring their safety. Companies such as Resort Quest and Motorola have donated products (including beach houses for the resting teams to sleep in, even though it’s spring break season) and money to provide for the 19 ruckers and seven members of their support team. The group also has a recreational vehicle and eight rental cars, which are being paid for through donations.
“It’s all based off people donating their hard-earned money. It’s important to do it as safely as possible, and to do that takes more money,” said Harris, noting the donations also include the time from the marchers. “All of us that are active-duty, we’re on leave, so this is taking up all our vacation for the year.”
Though Harris could not pin down a definite arrival time in Wilmington due to the nature of their journey (current estimates show them arriving sometime between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.), the Marine Raiders are scheduled to march through downtown Wilmington sometime Saturday afternoon. They will hop into the support cars to cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Harris said they’re not allowed to walk across the bridge due to North Carolina Department of Transportation rules) and get dropped off at Dramtree Park, at the waterfront almost directly under the bridge. From there, they’ll walk up to Front Street and head north, where they’ll turn on Market and walk straight up it all the way through Wilmington.
In addition bearing witness to the memorial march, those coming to cheer them on in Wilmington could get an extra treat.
“Usually there’s only two to three people walking each leg, but because it’s so close to the end, several more might join in during the walk through Wilmington,” Harris said. “This is not a single-person event. It’s definitely a team effort.”
While Wilmington, which is about 50 miles from Camp Lejeune, marks the end of this journey home for the Marines, Harris said he wouldn’t count out future marches. For now, however, Harris and his Raiders family are focusing on finishing this particular 770-mile trek. Though they’re worn out from the long days of walking, Harris said it’s all worth it.
“I’ve never seen happier faces with bloodier feet,” he said.
To support the Marine Raiders Memorial March and get their latest updates, including their estimated time of arrival into Wilmington, visit their website, Facebook page, Instagram page, and Twitter feed.