In Brunswick County, they blared “God Bless the USA” and had high fives and handshakes at the ready. In Wilmington, they lined Market Street and even joined in for part of the walk. Near the border with Pender County, they chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and had cupcakes and homemade cards to give out.
All had American flags and big smiles. All cheered and clapped with all their might. All were thankful and honored to see the Marine Raider Memorial March come through their hometowns on Saturday.
“Can you see them coming yet?” 10-year-old Brunswick County resident Aidan Talley asked as he waited along Highway 17 near the Walmart in Leland. “I can’t believe they’re walking all the way from Florida.”
Talley and his family were part of a group of well-wishers that gathered to see a group of Marine Raiders walking from Navarre, Florida to Camp Lejeune in honor of their brothers-in-arms who were killed on March 10, 2015 in a helicopter crash. The group of 19 “ruckers,” who are split into seven teams that take turns walking 11-mile legs, began their journey on March 11 in the beach town closest to where the Black Hawk UH-60 carrying seven Marine Raiders and four Louisiana National Guardsmen went down during training in bad weather. The 770-mile march, according to event organizers, is a way to symbolically bring their brothers home.
“It’s important to come out and support them,” said Talley. “It’s really cool to see.”
Across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in New Hanover County, supporters set up giant American flags around Dram Tree Park, where the group members not currently walking talked to citizens and the law enforcement officials waiting to escort them, as well as other Marines who came down from Camp Lejeune to walk through Wilmington with them. Volunteers from Step Up For Soldiers loaded up one of the group’s support vehicles with supplies, and a man on stilts dressed up as Uncle Sam helped keep spirits high.
That’s where Garrett Schluter, the youngest rucker, was getting ready for the walk through Wilmington.
“It’s really an honor to be able to do this,” said the 16-year-old, who’s missed seven days of school to do the journey. “These guys have really taken me under their wing throughout the whole trip.”
Schluter’s uncle, a Raider and founding member of the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the command that oversees the Raiders Regiment, was originally supposed to do the march but got deployed before it started. Schluter, who had asked the organizers beforehand if he could participate, decided to continue his commitment, now with the dual purpose of honoring both his uncle and the seven Marines lost that March night.
“I decided to stay and do it for the men and do it for him, because he wasn’t able to do it for those guys,” said Schluter, who’s considering becoming a Marine in the future. “This is really inspiring to a lot of people.”
Many of those people greeted the group with cheers and car honks as they made their way up Front and Market Streets. At the intersection of 16th and Market, a small group including children joined the Marching Raiders as they walked to their pit stop at the Port City Java in Forest Hills. There they were greeted by another large crowd, ready with hugs and lots of love and support.
Among the crowd were a few people (and a dog named Sid) wearing purple shirts with the name of another Marine and dates on them. They were worn by Wilmington resident Shannon Sheriff and her friends in remembrance of Sheriff’s fiance, Jason Robtoy, who served in Afghanistan.
“I lost my fiance to suicide two years ago,” said Sheriff, explaining the shirts’ significance. “We participated in our own walk in his honor last year to raise awareness for suicide prevention, and we just wanted to come out and support these guys during their walk.”
Honoring his fellow Marines is one of the reasons Staff Sgt. Caleb, who asked that his last name not be used, is completing the trek.
“I knew all the guys, replaced all of them on previous deployments,” said Caleb, a member of Team Flynn (each team is named after one of the fallen). “Liam Flynn was a good friend of mine. We had gone through some tough training together. He was always encouraging, always there for me.”
Caleb, a Raider who’s currently stationed at Camp Lejeune, said Marines take care of their own, offering support not just for each other, but also for their families.
“It’s definitely a big honor to be able to do this, to honor them and also to honor their great wives and children,” Caleb said as Flynn’s widow, Destiny, held back tears at hearing Caleb speak about her late husband. She is also doing the march in her late husband’s honor. “I don’t think we could ever do enough for the guys that have served the country and have died, especially for their children and widows.”
Eleven miles up Market Street, at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center Atlantic Surgicenter near the border with Pender County, a couple dozen children showed up with their families after dark Saturday to meet the ruckers.
Nine-year-old Georgia Ford and her 11-year-old brother Cooper of Hampstead were two of the first ones out there, waiting eagerly for nearly an hour with some special homemade items.
“We made posters to cheer them on and have cards to give them,” Georgia said while her brother scanned the dark highway for signs of the group’s telltale police escort. “Our family likes to support the troops.”
“It’s really cool to get to see them,” said Cooper, who taped his card to his poster board so he wouldn’t lose it before giving it to one of the marching Marines.
“I think it’s important to have them come out and be a part of something like this,” said their father, George.
Based on the crowds that showed up to greet the marching Marines in the tri-county area Saturday, George Ford wasn’t the only one who thought that. From toddlers to college students to Marines who have been retired for more than 50 years, they all came out to cheer on the Marine Raider Memorial March as they make their way to Camp Lejeune carrying their regiment’s flag as well as a paddle, the only item found in one piece from the wreckage of that Black Hawk crash. They’re expected to end their journey on base on Monday, March 21.
“The amount of support we’ve received has been truly tremendous,” said Staff Sgt. Nathan Harris, one of the event’s organizers, in a previous interview with Port City Daily. “It has been beyond what we imagined, and we’re very thankful for that.”
To support the Marine Raiders Memorial March and get their latest updates, including information on how to donate to their cause and get T-shirts, visit their website, Facebook page, Instagram page, and Twitter feed.