This Memorial Day — Sunday through Monday — I participated in the Carry the Load event, an overnight walk in support of men and women who have made great sacrifices for community and country.
A couple of Navy SEALS from our area started Carry the Load three years ago. The event, which lasts from afternoon Sunday through noon Memorial Day, began as symbolic effort — a 20-plus hour walk while carrying a weighted pack — to show solidarity with and gratitude for military members and veterans, police, firefighters and their families who have sacrificed lives, body parts, years, etcetera in order to save lives and serve country.
The inaugural 2011 walk took place at White Rock Lake, in conjunction with the White Rock Lake Centennial celebrations, and was attended by maybe a hundred people. Attendees could choose to walk any distance during any portion of the 20 hours, or spend the whole 20 hours out there. They may carry a heavy pack or a tiny flag — whatever they wish. Participants this year were encouraged (and rewarded with parking passes, camping access, etc.) for raising $200 or more, but anyone could register for free.
This year, I contemplated participating, because I have several family members who are military vets, cops and firefighters.
After interviewing, for a story, Mark Barnett of Lake Highlands CrossFit who was putting a White Rock area team together, I became even more interested. But I had recently suffered a running injury and wasn’t confident about walking a long distance.
Then, my grandfather Tom Hughes, a WWII veteran — who served with the elite Carlson’s Raiders, who came so close to death on Guadalcanal that he was dropped onto a pile of dead bodies, and who received the Purple Heart Award — died, a few weeks ago, at age 89.
The next week, we held a military internment at the National Cemetery and I saw how much the ceremony with the color guard, gun salute and bugle-rendition of Taps meant to my pops — a Vietnam veteran — so I decided I needed to Carry the Load this year. The gesture, I felt, would mean a lot to my dad my family.
I signed up a week before the event and raised $401 dollars from friends and relatives. I promised on my ‘fundraising page’ that I would traverse a mile for every ten dollars raised. That meant I had to walk 40 miles (on an injured foot). I was not prepared for that. But I would do my best.
When I arrived at Reverchon Park in Turtle Creek Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t believe the crowd. There were thousands of people here: Soldiers dressed in full long-sleeved fatigues and combat boots carrying huge backpacks (it was 90 degrees), firefighters carrying massive hoses and heavy gear, people with obvious injuries from IEDs and fire (one man walked hours painfully slowly on crutches), parents with children, a sweet-but-tough couple with matching “Vietnam Vet”/”Vietnam Wife” T-shirts (they covered the first seven-mile loop while stopping for cigarette break or two) — a vast array of people came, and it was beyond the sort of attendance this event has seen in years past. Funds raised this year totaled $1,073, 390.
I expected the crowd to dissipate as the night wore on, and it did, however the Katy Trail remained populated by participants throughout the night. After I had walked some 25 miles, I was lamenting my throbbing foot; about that time I fell in behind a guy in camo, knee-length shorts and black boots. He walked on one prosthetic leg. His other was mangled, as if it had been severed and sewn back on. He walked with a limp, but at a good clip. I stayed with him for a bit. Then I started jogging. He made me want to work harder.
Soon after, I came upon Jeff Venable, a longtime East Dallasite (recently relocated to suburbia) who eats 50-mile jogs for breakfast. He was walking in honor of his wife, a member of Dallas Fire-Rescue. After jogging and chatting with him for some time, I realized we had covered 35 miles. Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., as I hit my 40-mile goal, a group of soldiers commented on how much they appreciated our serious effort. Though my foot felt in danger of popping or cracking at that point, I was hobbling like a wounded soldier, and my sweaty backpack had rubbed a painful cavern into my back, these words made me want to press on.
I did, for another 10 miles. I called it quits just before sun up. Venable went on for another 14 and covered more ground than all but one other person at the walk.
I will never know what it is like to storm a beach on which armies of people are waiting to shoot me dead, or walk through the jungles of Vietnam, sleeping in mud and expecting to kill or be killed at any given moment. I won’t know it feels like to watch my young friends — some 17 or 18 years old — die all around me. I probably won’t know what it is like to run inside a burning building while everyone else is running out, or to be responsible for tracking down a killer or rapist. I won’t experience the sleepless night of the person whose husband, son or daughter is by nature of career or enlistment perpetually at risk of death or casualty.
However, Carry the Load offers an opportunity each Memorial Day for ordinary civilians, through meaningful, somewhat-grueling emblematic action, to prove our sincere recognition of and appreciation for those who do.