The 28 miles that changed my perspective

  • Published
  • By Culeen Shaffer
  • 193rd Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
When I first saw an ad for the Second Annual Pennsylvania National Guard March for the Fallen, I thought, "I've run two marathons; I can enter the personal challenge division and walk 28 miles." A few weeks later, however, I was talking to a fellow Airman about the event and he encouraged me to enter the military heavy division instead, which required participants to complete the march in military uniform carrying a pack weighing 35 lbs. After pondering it for a day, I decided it was all or nothing.

With my mind made up to be well-prepared for this year's event, I borrowed a military carrying pack from a friend and went seeking ruck advice from some friends at the 193rd Special Operations Security Forces Squadron. I was instructed on what boots to wear and how to correctly pack my ruck sack. I used a rolled-up fleece blanket, beach towels and a travel pillow for the base and a 24.5-lb. bag of rock salt on top.

In early April, I went on a few practice marches. I was grateful to have a marching partner for a few of them, Army Sgt. Tyler Larsen. Marching with someone else is way more enjoyable than marching alone! Sergeant Larson told me he was marching to pay tribute to those who no longer can.

On one of our practice marches - this one was 11.25 miles - it began raining and we struggled to find the motivation to continue. Then a man who had passed us miles earlier on his bike came back and said he had turned around because he felt God wanted him to pray for us. So with a hand on each of our shoulders, he prayed, and this is what I thought of as I pushed on through the rain.

With all the practice marching, I felt ready April 28, the morning of the march. I inventoried snacks, first aid supplies and socks. I then got my camera equipment, filled my water container, got dressed and weighed myself with and without the pack. My pack was about 36 pounds without the water.

I arrived at the Blue Mountain Track at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., to a good turnout. I was told there were 497 participants registered at our location and hundreds more registered at a satellite course in Kuwait. I was happy to see about two dozen from the 193rd Special Operations Wing. Among them was Tech. Sgt. Ryan Roberts, the Airman who encouraged me to join the heavy division. He was my ruck partner for about the first 12 miles, until I told him to go ahead, since I was slowing down. I knew it would be mostly trails and that there would be hills, but I did not expect the terrain to be so rocky or the hills to be as long and numerous. At one point, I told Sergeant Roberts, "The good news is I don't think we can go any higher." Then we turned a sharp corner only to discover I was wrong.

I wanted to quit, wished I had it in me to quit, but I just kept telling myself I would not. I needed to prove to any doubters that I could finish, but more importantly I needed to prove it to myself and continue to honor those I was marching for.

Luckily, after Sergeant Roberts and I parted ways, I was not alone for long. I ran into Master Sgts. Jeff Balliet and Dot Wozniak, and I also met a new friend, Staff Sgt. Corey Wileman. We made it to the halfway point and I decided if I was going to finish, I needed to stop being stubborn and dump some weight, so I got rid of the rock salt. A Soldier threw out a 20-pound dumbbell at the same time. He told me that some people had started shedding weight at mile three, which made me feel a little better about that decision.

Sergeant Wileman waited for me while I changed socks and checked for blisters. With less weight and "new feet," I felt like a new person temporarily. For the next five and a half miles, Sergeant Wileman and I marched on. He was marching in remembrance of fallen comrades and to support wounded warriors. Unlike me, he personally knew two young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country, Army Sgt. Brent Dunkleberger, whom he graduated with; and Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Frye, a friend he hung out with during hunting season. He reflected upon great memories he had shared with them.

The miles were marked with photos of fallen comrades, which kept Sergeant Wileman motivated for nearly 20 miles, at which point he had to stop. I wanted to do the same. However, I continued to tell myself I must finish.

The people had really thinned out by then. Fortunately, at mile 20, three military friends who were all together started texting me. Their timing to check up on me was perfect and got me through the next few miles.

Then came mile 25; the sky was getting dark and no one was in sight. I chose to jog a little, hoping to catch up to someone and keep from going the wrong way. A half mile later, I spotted Sergeant Wozniak, so I focused my attention on catching up to her, which I did at about mile 26. Sergeant Balliet was with her and now jokes about how I "came out of nowhere and would not let them stop."

Sergeant Larsen also texted to check up on me. He had finished in 9 hours and 52 minutes and said it was physically the hardest thing he's ever done in his life. Knowing he was doing it for his brothers who gave the ultimate sacrifice is the only thing that kept him going after his body gave up around mile 19. He said they gave their lives and the least he could do was march 28 miles for them.

With a mile left to go, my boss also texted to check up on me. I'm not sure if I would have finished without other people either texting me or marching with me. We often don't realize how much our mental resolve affects our physical capacity. I finished with Sergeants Balliet and Wozniak in 10 hours and 58 minutes.

When I got home, I cried a little, partially because of the physical wear and tear, but mainly because I finished. It was similar to when I saw the finish line of my first marathon; it's an emotion I can't quite describe. Then I cried a little more after removing my boots, socks and bandages and saw what I did to my toes. I felt like an idiot for doing that to myself. I even texted a good friend and he said, "Stop it! Now you've experienced a taste of what people have gone through to survive."

So what if I had blisters? So what if I ended up losing both big toenails? And so what if I wasn't able to run for a few weeks after that?

Although I didn't personally know any of the Pennsylvania fallen, I still wanted to honor them by finishing this march. I also wanted to complete it for my brother-in-law. A former active-duty field artillery Soldier, he deployed four times since 9/11 and each year I saw it take its toll physically and mentally.

Often, when I'm wearing the uniform in public, I tend to get thanked. I feel a bit undeserving of this praise because, even though I know I play a part in the bigger picture, it's my brother-in-law and others like him who put themselves in harm's way that should be thanked more. So participating in the march and writing this story is my small thank you to them and their families.