BEATTY — While they carried the weight of war on their backs, each veteran in the Operation Battle Born Ruck March had a specific fallen comrade in mind as they trudged along U.S. Highway 95 outside Beatty on Friday.
Former Army Maj. Ross Bryant, 58, said he was marching for his brother, Bill, a Navy petty officer during the Cold War who he said was poisoned by North Korean agents in 1981. At the time, Bryant said, the family was told he had died in an accident.
For Sean Brown, 31, a veteran of the Marine Corps, the memory had a physical manifestation: a black-and-silver etched bracelet on his wrist in honor of Lt. Cpl. Justin Swanson, who died on Nov. 10, 2009. The two went through boot camp together and Brown was with the Marine when he was killed in Afghanistan.
Former Navy Cmdr. Jelani Hale had many on his mind, saying he was marching for more than 30 comrades who died serving their country.
But he dedicated this year’s trek to a good friend, Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent, a mother of two who was killed by a suicide bomber in Syria in January, becoming the first woman service member to die in that conflict.
Altogether, about 250 Southern Nevadans participated in the march after relieving the veterans who set out from the Battle Born Memorial in Carson City on May 17.
Handover in Tonopah
The southern contingent met the northerners on Tuesday in Tonopah for the final legs of the trek, which will end at the Southern Nevada Veterans Cemetery in Boulder City in time for a special ceremony in the chapel at 1 p.m. on Monday.
The group aimed to cover about 70 miles a day, with each participant walking 10-mile increments while carrying one of four 30-pound “rucks” — short for rucksacks — containing a total of 6,950 dog tags in honor of service members who died since 9/11.
The 58 service members from Nevada who died were packed in a separate rucksack, carefully bundled together in American flag bandannas.
Hale was accompanied during Friday’s leg by his 9-year-old daughter, Jet, who wore a hat commemorating another fallen comrade of her dad, Charles Keating, a chief petty officer and Navy SEAL who was killed by ISIS in Iraq in 2016.
“The big takeaway for her is, this is the first day of summer break, and when you have the day off, suffer a bit and reflect for those who gave everything,” Hale said.
The second annual 10-day march was organized by the UNLV Rebel Veterans Organization and the Reno-based Truckee Meadows Veterans Club and logged more than 400 miles. For the second go-round, the marchers reversed polarity after walking from Las Vegas to Carson City last year.
Throughout Friday’s march, the group had several cars rolling alongside to provide water to the walkers and a large Henderson Vet Center truck tagging along to provide counseling and outreach to veterans — both participants in the walk and those who live in the rural areas that don’t always have access to in-person care.
‘Time to pay homage’
“It’s time to pay homage to the fallen and the sacrifices they made, but it’s also an opportunity to find purpose in life after the military service,” Phellep Snow, a retired Marine sergeant, said of the march.
Some of the marchers brought their pets with them.
On Thursday, a German Shepherd named “Bobbo” and his owner, Matthew DeFalco, set a record for a single 10-mile leg, covering it in two hours and 15 minutes.
Former Air Force Staff Sgt. Derick Butler, 34, vice president of Rebel Vets, took his turn hoisting the ruck for Sgt. Supreme Gatewood, a Marine who influenced him to join the corps but later died by suicide.
“When you march for each service member, it’s an expression of gratitude,” he said. “Even though he took his own life, it’s a way to honor those that go through things we will never understand.”
As they neared Beatty late Friday morning, the marchers maintained a solid pace, their boots and sneakers crunching on the gravel shoulder as truck drivers beeped their horns and traffic whizzed by. A herd of donkeys trotted by and gave the procession a brief look. A day earlier, some of the marchers had braved 45 miles of rain as they made their way in.
Kaci Schroeder, who works as a marketing communications manager at UNLV, was not a veteran, but her father, Randy, served in the Air Force and her two brothers currently serve in the Navy.
On Friday, after walking several miles unburdened, she asked to carry a bag containing the dog tags for the rest of the seven miles in her trek.
“It’s a little pain,” Bryant, director of UNLV’s Military and Veterans Services Center, said as he passed it to her during the third mile.
“But it’s a remembrance of those who died, and a little idea of the pain the families feel when they lose a loved one. I know how mine felt.”