A march to remember

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Producing the short documentary for the Bataan Memorial Death March marathon and half-marathon, led to an all-encompassing moment where I realized just how fortunate I am to be an Air Force broadcaster. I realized my career exposes me to beautiful sites, inspirational people and a breadth of impactful, fulfilling experiences. The memorial march summed up all of this in one, powerful package.

For a few months preceding the event, I rucked with the Holloman Air Force Base senior noncommissioned officer team. New to Holloman, I enjoyed the exposure to the unique New Mexico terrain and the challenge of rucking through the desert and up mountains, while simultaneously trying to capture a quality product. Every time we'd finish, I'd wipe the sweat off my forehead with a proud sense of accomplishment -- knowing I not only witnessed some of the most unusual, natural landscapes, but got to document the raw, authentic experience of people actively engaging in the environment.

At 3 a.m. on the day of the event, I loaded up my gear and drove about an hour from Holloman to the White Sands Missile Range. I pulled up, got out of my car and nearly fell over from fierce, howling winds. Many of the participants, including national and international civilians and servicemembers, were huddled, lying with their head on their ruck sacks awaiting the start of the event. Others were waiting in what seemed to be a never ending line at the port-a-johns.

During the march, I rucked beside the participants in the middle of the rugged desert terrain, witnessing the support and strength of more than 6,000 participants. Many of the marchers carried ruck sacks on their backs the size of small children, bearing the weight through their desert trek, to commemorate the struggles of the Bataan prisoners of war.

As I ran beside them with my camera, in between breaths, I was able to ask what the march meant to them. Answers and perspectives varied greatly from person to person and especially from service to service. But one thing everyone shared in common was how real the experiences of the POWs became as the heroes of Bataan stood before them in person at the beginning and end of the event. The consensus was something I could really identify with.

At the end of the march, I had the great privilege of sitting down and getting to speak with a survivor, William Eldridge, one-on-one for a few hours. After I introduced myself, I told him preparing for the memorial event, I had been avidly reading about the experiences of the Bataan POWs. I told him in earnest, the horrific, brutal account simply did not seem real. It was as though I was reading fiction -- this just could not have been a real, human experience. But then I told him upon seeing him, and shaking his hand, there was no longer this disconnect -- I understood this man was a survivor, an inspiration and living, tangible history.

Mr. Eldridge relayed a detailed account of his experience, sharing many personal, sordid details. His family, kids and grandkids, sat attentively behind me as we spoke. After this intimate, emotional interview, his family thanked me. They told me they had never heard many of the stories he shared. If the experience wasn't humbling before, it was undeniable in that moment.

Mr. Eldridge's main objective for coming to the memorial events, over the last five years, is to tell his story -- to make sure his experience wasn't lost on the Bataan peninsula.

As a broadcaster, it was my job to act as a vessel to allow his story to reach people on a grander scale. After the hell he survived, it was an honor to play a part in making sure his story survives on. Yes, The Bataan Memorial Death March truly solidified to me what a privilege it is to be an Air Force broadcaster and an American Airman.