Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho --
Since December, every Wednesday at 5:00 a.m., a small group of Airmen from the 726th Air Control Squadron could be seen heading east on Bomber Road with heavy rucksacks on their backs in the predawn darkness. Waking up that early on a cold Idaho winter morning to march 15+ miles with 35 pounds on their backs, before a workday, takes dedication and drive. These Airmen have plenty of both.
They were training to complete the Bataan Memorial Death March, which honors the 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war who were forced by their captors to march over 60 miles following the fall of the Philippines in 1942. Each year since 1989, participants ruck march 26.2 miles at the White Sands Missile Range with varying weights depending on which class they enter.
However, this year the march was met with an obstacle it has never faced before, a global pandemic. As COVID-19 rapidly spreads around the world, many public gatherings have been canceled to control the spread of the virus. To protect the health and safety of the participants, the organizers made the difficult and painful decision to cancel this year’s march.
That wouldn’t stop the relentlessly committed Airmen of the 726th ACS from honoring and remembering the Bataan Death March, so they and their teammates from around the 366th Fighter Wing would have to find a way to do it on their own.
“The decision was made almost immediately once we heard the event was canceled,” said 2ndLt. Brett Collins, 726th Air Control Squadron section commander. “We had the full support of our squadron and wing leadership. They gave us that Friday to complete the march so we started planning right away.”
“There are fewer and fewer WWII veterans every year that will still be here to pass that story on,” saidStaff Sgt. Mark Howell, 726th ACS cyber surety supervisor.
Events like this ensure that service members and civilians alike remember the sacrifices that previous generations made to secure the freedoms that Americans enjoy.
“Sometimes we forget how we’ve been built,” said Airman 1st Class Alex Branson, 726th ACS radar airfield and weather systems technician. “It’s through the sacrifices and hardships endured by those who came before us.”
Howell and Branson took point on the coordination of the march. They had less than 48 hours to pull it off including scouting out the route, securing medical support and obtaining an escort from Security Forces.
The plan was to hike from the base front gate to Bruneau Dunes State Park, 26 miles away, and then climb up the tallest sand dune in North America upon arrival at the park.
“It was actually our squadron commander, Lt. Col. Barber, who suggested we hike out to Bruneau Dunes,” said Collins. “It was the perfect distance without any loops or backtracking.”
The team was aware of another group of Airmen from the 366th Security Forces Squadron that had been training for Bataan as well, so they suggested bringing the two teams together. By the time of the march, the team included Airmen from the 726th ACS, the 366th SFS, the 366th Communications Squadron and even the 366th Fighter Wing Staff.
“The more the better,” said Branson. “The more people you have involved you get different character attributes and it just makes it a lot more fun.”
Taking on a challenge like this with people of varying experiences takes careful consideration to make the event successful.
“We also understood that everyone’s experience levels would be different, we knew that not everyone had rucked that far before, so everything was scaled and catered to the different ability levels. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” said Howell.
No other squadron on Mountain Home AFB could’ve so easily pulled off this kind of event in such a short timeframe, due to the unique capabilities of the 726th ACS.
“Our squadron is fairly self-sufficient with its deployment capability, so we already had most of what we needed to be self-sustaining,” said Howell.
The 726th ACS occupies a unique position as a tenant unit on Mountain Home AFB. They are a highly deployable unit, almost always having members overseas providing a multi-domain command and control capability to combatant commanders. Their unique mission set makes its members vital subject matter experts in agile combat employment as the 366th Fighter Wing develops its lead wing and ACE capabilities, as the squadron practices that capability on a very regular basis. Having the 726th ACS here also provides very realistic training opportunities for the aircrews of the 366th Fighter Wing, as well as for the members of the squadron. They are able to practice communicating and fighting with each other exactly as they would in a deployed environment. The ability to do that training locally greatly enhances the readiness and interoperability of both units.
“You can tell that we’re very integrated into the base and that communication is taking place between us and the 366th,” Branson said.
The ruck march was a perfect example of this integration, as Airmen from across the two organizations came together under one banner to pay tribute to past warriors and their sacrifices.
“Our event will never match how arduous it really was for those POWs or even how difficult the Bataan Memorial Death March is in New Mexico,” Howell said. “But it still allowed us to honor and remember their sacrifice.”