100 mile road to 'glory'

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Gustavo Castillo
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The sun had not even risen, yet the hustle and bustle of hundreds of troops had been echoing throughout the camp for hours. Some fought off sleep, while others seemed to have been electrified with anticipation. Either way, as time passed by, all rushed to ensure their ruck had the required weight and enough food and water before heading to the starting line.

Troops stretched farther than the eye could see, disappearing into the fog of the morning. A voice through the loud speaker resonated, "Are you ready?" They'd soon find out.

Platoon leaders called cadence to the sound of boots stomping across the pavement. The troops' eagerness for a moment like this could be felt radiating from one formation to the next.

At first, an eerie silence filled each passing town as it was too early for most to be awake. But the sound of boots hitting pavement filled each city as the troops marched through.

Soon, more and more supporters found their way to the mass of participants, cheering on every passing group no matter what nation they represented.

Sights like this happen fairly often as part of the 98th International Four Days Marches Nijmegen, which is organized to promote sport and exercise. The event's storied reputation grows each year, making it the world's largest multi-day walking event. Every passing country shares in the excitement of what the next four days may bring. Camaraderie often stems from the shared knowledge of the pain and hardships every participant will endure together.

A team of Soldiers and Airmen from the U.S. Army's 361st Civil Affairs Brigade and the U.S. Air Force's 52nd Fighter Wing took up this 100-mile challenge.

"If anybody doesn't really understand what NATO means, or the European union, come to an event like this," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matt Sampson, 361st CAB ruck team leader. "When you see all of the different militaries that come and represent here, you will have a greater understanding of what it really means."

Soldiers from different countries march side by side, exchanging stories, patches and souvenirs. They laugh together and seem relieved to meet in an environment not driven by a war. At multiple points throughout the march, civilian walkers participating in the event crossed paths with the troops.

"I was honored to be a part of a joint U.S. Air Force and Army team of military athletes for the Nijmegen 100 mile ruck march," said U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Dave Esra, 361st Civil Affairs ruck team member. "The Nijmegen event demonstrates some of the pillars of Comprehensive Fitness whether Army or Air Force."

Each day, marching participants must complete a certain amount of miles within a given time limit to continue throughout the week. For some, that challenge simply became too much, particularly after battling the hardships the 40 kilometers marched in just the first day. Three members of the CAB group bowed out after day one, and two more dropped out before the second day ended.

"Even after the first day, it was hard for me to get up in the morning," Sampson said. "I was sore; I felt like I had been run over by a truck. I don't know if there was a single area of my body that didn't hurt. But there was also the motivation that the rest of the guys in the unit had to get up and do the same thing again the next day."

Even though some of the team did not complete the entire event, they said they enjoyed the time spent with members of the other armed forces. They may not have finished this time, but some vowed to return and conquer the Nijmegen march.

"I think it's a great event," Sampson said. "If Soldiers have an opportunity to come and do this, I highly encourage them. I really appreciate the command putting the support to bring the team together, and this being a joint team made it even more special. It's great, and I hope they continue to sponsor a team every year."

Toward the event's final days, the 361st CAB team wore thin. Only eight members out of 16 remained and were accompanied by a lot of pain. But each person needed something more than just physical strength to complete the march, and they found their pride shouting louder than any pain could to keep them from quitting.

"Before doing the event, I'm not sure if I could have spoken to the emotional dimension," Esra said. "But now I can absolutely say this was an emotional event. Making it across that finish line as a team ... well, it was pretty powerful."

More than half of the original team fell out before the 100-mile mark. But throughout the week, 39,910 civilians and military members from countries around the world completed the march to receive their medal, the Four Days Marches Cross, a decoration approved by the Dutch monarchy that Dutch servicemen may wear on their uniform.

The march completed represented a long, rough road literally full of blood, sweat and tears. The march tested the determination and willpower of all its participants. Those who finished felt they truly earned their medal, along with the respect of all previous Nijmegen marchers.

"It felt glorious," said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brandon Anderson, a 361st CAB ruck team member and member of the 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron. "It's pretty epic to be able to accomplish such a feat with such a high attrition rate among so many squadrons. And to be off my feet is even better."