In March 2017, more than 7,000 people rucked across the New Mexico desert. They marched 26.2 miles through the White Sands Missile Range as part of the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March.
Among the participants were MAJ Christopher Melvin and a unit of Soldiers from the Arizona Army National Guard (AZARNG) who provide medical care to other Soldiers. Melvin is a Chaplain and coordinator of the AZARNG Strong Bonds program. Strong Bonds is a Chaplain-led program for Soldiers and their families that helps them build resilience and strengthen their relationships. It’s available for any Soldier who wants to learn skills to help cope with challenges in life.
Strong Bonds has been successful in Arizona partly because it focuses on encouraging Soldiers to take part in unique, physically challenging events, Melvin said. These events—such as the Bataan Memorial Death March and rim-to-rim hikes of the Grand Canyon—are designed to push Soldiers’ minds, bodies, and spirits.
“The teaching points on emotional health and relationship skills take on a new level of ‘stickiness’ in the Soldiers’ hearts and minds when they’re combined with an outdoor event like a 26.2-mile ruck march with a 6,000-foot elevation change,” MAJ Melvin says.
He and other Chaplains saw the event as a chance to build resilience among Soldiers who provide medical care, such as combat medics or members of the medical corps. Many times they forget to care for their own mental, spiritual, and physical needs.
According to Melvin, “the goal of the Bataan Memorial Death March is to create a physically challenging, spiritually transcendent, and emotionally moving event.” He said events like this help:
- Grow relationships
- Build team unity
- Develop understanding about one another
“We wanted to focus on Soldier relationships with other Soldiers and help build their individual resilience,” Melvin said.
He and his unit began preparing for the event months in advance. They followed a 14-week training plan, which included a hiking regimen that grew more intense each week. When it finally came time to march, they were ready for the challenge.
As the temperature rose and rucksacks grew heavier, Melvin’s team found motivation from fellow service members killed in action. Before the event, they identified Gold Star families who would be willing to share a favorite picture of their loved one. The team pinned these photos to their rucksacks to honor their memory. “Honoring the sacrifice of these Soldiers provided a lot of motivation for us to keep rucking,” he said.
Each Soldier crossed the finish line armed with new tools to help them handle the stresses of everyday life. For Soldiers who may have a tough time juggling their military and civilian duties, MAJ Melvin hopes they remember this tip: never do it alone.