HURLBURT FIELD — On Sunday, 16 Special Operations airmen will leave Hurlburt Field with 40-pound rucksacks slung over their shoulders and march 450 miles to Tampa.
The four relay “ruck” teams will march day and night through Feb. 8, the date of their expected arrival at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
They are marching to honor five of their Special Ops comrades who were killed in action over the last year and to raise money for the children they left behind to go to college.
“We can only imagine the pain and suffering of their families,” said Sgt. Deon McGowen, a Hurlburt airman who organized the event.
McGowen started the march last year to honor the people who died when a Chinook helicopter crashed in Afghanistan in August 2011. Many of those killed were Special Ops service members and several were McGowen’s friends.
Five airmen with the Air Force Special Operations Group at Hurlburt were killed last year in the line of duty. All died in February 2012, shortly after last year’s march wrapped up.
The morning after McGowen’s group completed their march to Tampa, they received word that four fellow airmen had been killed in a plane crash Feb. 18.
Capt. Ryan Hall, 30, Capt. Nicholas Whitlock, 29, 1st Lt. Justin Wilken, 26, and Senior Airman Julian Scholten, 26, died when their U28-A airplane crashed in the Horn of Africa.
About a week later on Feb. 28, Lt. Col. John Loftis, 44, was shot to death at his desk during an attack on the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“It was a hard week for everyone,” McGowen said.
Several of the airmen who will march this year were close friends or roommates with the men who were killed, McGowen said.
The group already has raised more than $5,000 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and hope to reach this year’s goal of $50,000.
They raised $25,000 last year, McGowen said.
The foundation provides full college scholarships for children of Special Ops servicemen who are killed in the line of duty. The foundation now funds 140 children in college or vocational programs and has another 900 children who will be eligible, McGowen said.
His group has grown from 11 to 16 marchers this year, although he is the only one returning from last year.
“They were a lot smarter than me,” he joked.
Two additional team members, a medic and an airman who will provide technical and media support, will travel with the marchers.
The airmen dedicate their personal time to the event and have been training by walking and running with 40 to 50-pound rucksacks on their backs.
They plan to cover about 90 miles a day.
McGowen said they’ll likely get about four to five hours sleep a night while their team is on break.
The marchers can expect blisters, torn toenails and more than a few backaches.
“But it’s just a little sacrifice we can endure because these guys paid the ultimate sacrifice,” McGowen said.
CHECK IT OUT: All 16 marchers will kick-off at Hurlburt Field at 9:15 a.m. Sunday. They will march north on Martin Luther King Boulevard to Green Acres Road to Beal Parkway and stop briefly at Quality Imports, the car dealership that is a major sponsor of the event, about 11 a.m. The first relay group will continue down Beal to U.S. Highway 98 and on to Helen Back on Okaloosa Island by about 2 p.m. and then Johnny O’Quigley’s in Destin about 5:30 p.m.
The public is invited to come out and cheer the marchers on or even join them for any part of the march.
WANT TO HELP? To donate, find out more information and track the group’s march visit their Facebook page “Air Commando Ruckers” or their page at firstgiving.com under “Air Commando Ruck & Climb.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.