COLUMBUS, TX – A team of 18 special tactics have one objective in mind: honor the fallen.
The team began an 812-mile march from Medina Annex, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas to Hurlburt Field, Fla., to commemorate 17 fallen comrades.
As they marched out at 5 a.m. in the darkness, carrying 50-pound rucksacks and a baton with a fallen Airman’s name, the only sound heard was the footsteps of the marchers, and it was almost as if the seventeen fallen were marching with them.
Major Travis Woodworth, Special Tactics Training Squadron commander, said the meaning of the memorial march is not one of these men’s deaths is in vain.
“Every day I walk into the squadron and see their faces on our memorial wall,” Woodworth said. “This march will ensure new operators and young Airmen don’t ever forget the cost of freedom.”
In 2009, Master Sgt. Ken Huhman and Capt. Sam Schindler, who were both with the 342nd Training Squadron at Medina Annex, founded the Tim Davis Memorial March as a way to remember the fallen ST Airmen and honor their families.
So far, the march has taken place every year although it is not an annual event. It only goes on if a special tactics Airman dies in combat.
The timeline extends one year from October. The 2011 march planning began after three ST Airmen lost their lives Aug. 6 in the CH-47 crash in Afghanistan.
Chief Master Sgt. (ret.) Steven Haggett and Capt. Daniel Breiding, STTS student, organized the 2011 march. It originated at Medina Annex, where pipeline training begins for ST Airmen. It concludes at Hurlburt Field, Fla., where ST Airmen complete their training with Air Force Special Operations Command.
Haggett and Breiding said they hope the march will educate the public about Air Force specialties like combat control and pararescue, which have very unique missions.
One of those combat controllers participating in the march is Senior Airman John Hansard from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.
He said he feels the march is a very worthwhile way to remember the fallen and represent the 22nd STS, which has members with very close ties to the fallen.
“I knew Mark Forester and Danny Sanchez, but one of my friends at the squadron was best friends with Forester,” Hansard said. “He is deployed and asked me to march in his place to honor Forester.”
Hansard did not know what to expect along the way but said he was surprised when they marched through a local town and about 25 people were standing on the side of the road cheering them on and waving American flags. He said a Vietnam veteran came out to shake their hands.
“I hope everyone not only keeps in mind the 17 men we are honoring but also remembers our comrades overseas doing their job,” Hansard said. “We’ve been at war for 10 years now, and people tend to forget our daily sacrifices.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the team marched approximately 160 miles, traveling through Texas towns such as Seguin, Luling, Flatonia, Schulenburg, Weimer, Columbus and Sealy. Despite the blisters, sunburns and aches, they are determined to keep going.
Woodworth said when the men start feeling pain they remember the guys they lost suffered so much more. There is no room to complain.
“The physical pain the men go through on this march doesn’t hold a candle to the emotional pain of the kids who lost their dads; of the families who continue to mourn for their loved one.”
Senior Airman Tyler Knaub, pararescueman from the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., said the march has turned out to be much bigger than he expected.
“It is extremely motivating, and I’m fortunate to be a part of it,” Knaub said. “In San Antonio there were groups of bicycle riders who knew who we were and yelled, ‘hooyah, pjs!’
He said despite their pain and exhaustion, they stood up straighter and could not help but smile when people high-fived or thanked them.
“The motivation from our peoples’ pride fueled us that extra limit,” he said. “My best experience, hands down, was when a little girl of about seven or eight years old hung out the window of her parents’ vehicle and waved to us, yelling ‘thank you!'”
The march resonates with Chief Master Sgt. Tony Negron, who used to be with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron out of Pope Field, N.C. and is now the PJ functional manager at Air Combat Command.
The loss is personal to him. Negron knew many of the fallen ST Airmen including Staff Sgt. Scott Sather and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham.
When Negron was the operations superintendent at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., the curator of the Enlisted Heritage Hall at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., asked him to create an exhibit in honor of Cunningham. Cunningham was stationed at Moody Air Force Base when he was killed.
“Because of that, I got to know the family very well, and I called Cunningham’s mother before this year’s march started to ask her if I could carry his baton,” Negron said. “To me, this march is about looking out for the families of the fallen. This means so much to them that we never forget the sacrifice their sons made.”
Oftentimes, the people who have to pick up the ST fallen are their own comrades. Negron talked about the numerous times he had to pick up his brothers and sighed when he recalled talking with Sather before he went out on a mission and then two hours later having to treat him.
Negron said the marchers are here to remember and to let the mothers, fathers, wives and children know we have not forgotten what their loved one did for the Air Force, the U.S. military and our country.
“Special Tactics Airmen risk their lives every day on the battlefield to save others,” Breiding said. “These 17 fallen paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom and this march is just one way to show these men and their families they are never forgotten.”