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7 from Keesler finish Bataan Memorial March

  • Published
  • By Steve Pivnick and Airman 1st Class Siuta Ika
  • 81st Medical Group Public Affairs and 48th Wing Public Affairs
Seven members of the 81st Medical Group were among people from around the U.S. and several foreign countries who gathered March 27 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., for the 22nd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March to honor and recognize a special group of World War II veterans.

Nelson Viniegra, Airman 1st Class Guillermo Hernandez , Staff Sgts. Mark Bautista and Norites Bittig and Tech. Sgt. Jermain Smith, 81st Medical Operations Squadron; Maj. Mary Harvey, 81st Surgical Operations Squadron; and Staff Sgt. Nornil Villaflores, 81st Medical Group, joined more than 6,100 people who participated in this year's marathon, making it the largest turnout in the event's history. Sixteen survivors from the original march also attended and were on hand to greet participants at the start and end of the race.

History of march

The Bataan Memorial Death March honors the 75,000 U.S. and Filipino troops who surrendered to the Japanese while defending the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines and then marched more than 60 miles through the Philippine jungle.

The prisoners of war were forced to march without food or water resulting in the deaths of thousands due to disease, dehydration and starvation. The troops who could not keep with the rest of the marchers were executed on the spot by the Japanese soldiers.

The memorial march offered two different courses: a 26.2-mile trek and a 15-mile course both sprawling over the high-elevation desert terrain of the missile range. Along the way, more than 750 volunteers distributed thousands of gallons of water and sports drinks, treated participants' blisters and provided course support and security.

Record-breaking participation

According to event organizers, each year the memorial march has gained more participants. Last year's march drew a record crowd of 5,400, with this year's topping that mark with more than 6,400 registrants -- a far cry from the 100 participants of the first memorial march in 1989.

The march offered many different categories for participants and was broken down into different age groups. Participants could choose from the light category -- no weight, or the heavy category -- ruck equaling at least 35 pounds. Also, participants could choose to do the Honorary Bataan Memorial Death March course which is about 15 miles.

Major Harvey has been in the Air Force 17 years and marks four years at Keesler in May.

"I first found out about the Bataan Memorial Death March when I was attending the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., from May 2005-May 2007. A fellow student trained to march the marathon in uniform with the 40-pound pack. She completed her goal.

"While deployed last year, I race-walked two half-marathons and I wanted to continue challenging myself when I returned home. As soon as I came home, I posted a challenge on Facebook to see who would want to train with me for this awesome event. The only person who took up the challenge was my daughter, a teacher from Pass Christian. Since she had never race-walked a half-marathon, we decided to do the 15-mile commemorative march. We trained and were able to complete the 15 miles in a little over five hours.

"It was a very moving experience meeting the survivors and seeing our wounded warriors marching right beside us. It is an experience we'll never forget. We are already planning for next year and hope to take more family members.

Sergeant Villaflores has been in the Air Force for six years. Keesler is her initial assignment. "This is my first marathon ever. I thought if I'm ever going to do one, I might as well do it during the Bataan Memorial March.

"I did the march to honor the people who went through it in my home country and the country I currently serve. I heard about the event from Sergeant Bittig last December. Knowing we would be walking in boots, Segeant Bittig and I started training in January.

"We walked at least three times a week until we got used to walking with our boots. We initially walked from the Beau Rivage to the Ocean Springs-Biloxi Bridge and back (about six miles), then we gradually increased the distance and reduced the days of training. I read there would be sand on the trail so most of our walking was on the beach along Highway 90. The longest training we did was 20 miles in eight hours (from DeBuys Road at the western boundary of Biloxi to the Ocean Springs-Biloxi Bridge and back).

"On the actual march day, my main goals were to finish the 26.2-mile march in less than 12 hours and to not get disqualified (for falling out or injury). The training paid off; I ranked 41st in the military female lightweight category with a time of 7:55:03.

"The march gave me time to reflect and appreciate my life more. It also gave me even higher regard for those people who died during or survived the march; they died to protect our freedom. It was a very humbling experience. I would recommend people do it at least once."

Mr. Viniegra served on active duty with the Air Force for seven years and has been with the 81st MDG for 16 years.

"This was my third march and I completed it in 6:12. I participated because of the great experience I had in the past. The journey overall was the best, from the drive there, hanging out with my friends, the march and the drive back. I would encourage anyone who asks to try it at least once."

Sergeant Smith has served with the Air Force for 14 years and has been at Keesler for 2½ years.

"Why I did the march? First, I wanted to see if I could do it. Second, I wanted to learn first-hand what the Bataan Death March was all about. My official time was 8:44:35. I placed 193rd out of 427 in the military heavy Category and my official ruck sack weight was 44 pounds I would encourage anyone, active duty or civilian, to complete this challenge at least once. It's tough, but very rewarding, considering the origins of the march."

Sergeant Bittig marks five years of Air Force service in May. Keesler is her first assignment.

"The Bataan Death March took place in the Philippines. I'm Filipino and a member of the U.S. military; participating in the memorial march was like being in the shoes of both Filipinos and Americans who were forced to march. Since it was scheduled the day after my birthday, finishing the Bataan Memorial Death March Memorial was a birthday challenge and a reward that I set for myself.

"My official time was 7:55:02 and I placed 41st out of 115 in the female military light category. The march was so difficult -- I got 11 blisters. I encourage anyone who wants to participate to train and, most of all, have good boots. Overall, it was a fun, difficult and rewarding experience. I will definitely do it again!"

Sergeant Bautista has been in the Air Force for 10 years, the last three at Keesler.

"There are only a few survivors left from the actual Death March. It was an honor to be able to shake their hands and speak with them. A few days before the march, I listened to Col. Glenn Frazier speak about his experiences as a death march prisoner of war.

"The beginning of the event was very emotional. It was 40 degrees outside with high winds. Almost everybody was sitting or standing close to one another trying to keep warm. Drummers led the participants to the starting line and with more than 6,400 participants, the faint and rhythmic beats from the snares seemed so loud and bold.

"Most participants did not care about time. We formed a line and shook the hands of the survivors who were seated along the sidewalk. Airman Hernandez, Sergeant Smith and I got off to a good start with about a 4 mph pace. I slowed down but they kept up the pace. I caught up to Sergeant Smith by Mile 10, but by then my legs were starting to cramp.

"I had trained with a heavier pack before the event, but I was not expecting all the sand pits, soft dirt the many hills and elevation. I knew it was going to be tough, but I've never been pushed this hard before. One of my favorite quotes is from General (George S.) Patton who said, 'Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.' I had to dig deep.

"A major motivation for me during the event was the bananas and the fresh cut oranges! During the real death march, marchers who stopped were beaten, shot, bayoneted, tortured and so forth. Here we were offered bananas, oranges, Gatorade. It can't get any better than that. No matter how painful it was, there really was no real reason to quit. I had to finish. I finished in 10 hours, two hours behind my buddies. I was in a lot of pain, but hey, I finished. My plan is to get a piece of something from every branch of service: Air Force marathon, check. Bataan Memorial, check. Now, it's on to the next one."

Airman Hernandez has been in the Air Force for just over two years and at Keesler for 19 months.

"This was my first time participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March. I did it to honor all the actual Bataan Death Marchers and for a sense of accomplishment.

"My emotions during the march where all over the place. There were times I wanted to quit as I wondered what survivors must have been going through. My chip time was 8:05 at a pace of 18:31. This was beyond one of the toughest challenges I have ever encountered but I will most definitely do it again next year. I encourage as many people as possible to try it."