ROTC memorial march honors soldiers, families

Members of the University ROTC program recently competed in the sixth annual Mountain Man Memorial March in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The march is an event that was created as a way to honor the military men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

According to the event’s website, teams hike 26.2 miles through the Smokey Mountains on trails made of paved road, gravel road and other types of terrain. The path is made up of flat stretches, rolling hills and steep climbs.

Jordan Sanderson is a member of the ROTC, and one of thirty men and women who participated in the march this year.

“The race is tough and grueling. During the entire march, you are going up and down mountains,” he said. “There are times that you just want to quit, but you keep pushing forward because of the meaning behind the march.”

Each team in the march represents a Gold Star family. In a ceremony the night before the race, the Gold Star families present team members with a photo of the person they are honoring, their name and the date of their death. The teams are also given a Gold Star flag, both of which are carried throughout the march.

“The pain and exhaustion that the marchers face is to symbolize the pain and suffering that was placed both on those who died for this nation, and the families they left behind who must live with the pain of their loss every day,” Sanderson said. “At the finish line, you meet back up with the Gold Star family. It is very emotional seeing the faces of family members at the finish line, who are full of happiness and pride with what you just did in honor of their son or daughter. It is a feeling that you never forget,” he said.

The Mountain Man Memorial March began as a way to honor First Lieutenant Frank B. Walkup, IV. Walkup was a 2005 graduate of the University of Tennessee and an ROTC alumnus. He was killed in action in Iraq in 2007, when an explosive device detonated near his vehicle. A group of University of Tennessee Cadets wanted a way to honor 1LT Walkup and his family, and so the MMMM began, Sanderson said.

Senior and Director of Staff for the ROTC, Brandon Werling, said the marathon was one of the most strenuous things he has ever done, both physically and emotionally.

You eventually hit a wall of self-doubt where you don’t think you can finish, but knowing that you’re marching for a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice for you and your country keeps you going to the finish,” Werling said. “[At the finish line] the family and friends of the soldiers are waiting with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. I can speak for all of my fellow cadets when I say that this march is one of the most heart warming experiences we’ve ever been through.”

The inaugural march was held in April 2008 with 40 Cadets from East Tennessee ROTC programs. The 2013 MMMM honored over 75 service members from all branches of the United States military and their families. There were over 575 participants from all over the U.S.

The MMMM website said the march is divided into categories. The main categories are the half marathon light, half marathon heavy, full marathon light and full marathon heavy. Light means that you wear your military uniform and a canteen belt, and full means you wear your military uniform and a loaded down rucksack. The University ROTC team completed the full marathon light.

Sanderson said that the cadets at the University intend on competing in the MMMM every year. “We feel that this is a moving and humbling experience to see the impact that is placed on the Gold Star families as we represent their fallen son or daughter,” he said. “You feel that you are representing something larger than yourself, which is why the cadets wish to continue to go every year. It is more than a race; it is a way to remember the sacrifice of those who died serving this nation,” he said.