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Marching fallen brothers home
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Carollynne Tatum, 4, of Hinesville, gives one of the Marine Raider Memorial March ruck marchers a high-five as they pass through Hinesville late Tuesday. - photo by Photo by Cailtin Kenney

Twenty-one men and women, consisting of Marines, military spouses, and supporters, marched their way across Georgia last week to honor Marine Raiders who were killed in a helicopter crash last year.

The Marine Raider Memorial March was founded by Marine Nathan Harris to honor the seven Marine Raiders and four Louisiana Army National Guardsmen who died March 10, 2015, in Navarre, Florida, when their UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crashed during a night training mission.

The march is raising money for the Brothers in Arms Foundation, a nonprofit that supports members of the Marine Special Operations Community and the families of the fallen, according to the Marine Raider Memorial March website.

“So this journey is symbolic to the voyage from the crash site back to where we’re based,” Harris said. “So signifying bringing our brothers back home. Taking them on the journey that they weren’t able to make.”

The marchers on the teams are carrying rucksacks that weigh 45 pounds up to 15 miles per stretch in a relay-style format. Each of the seven teams is carrying a 35-pound engraved steel plate with the names of the fallen that will be presented to their families at the end of the journey.

Aaron, who has been in the Marines for nine years and only gave his first name, said the ruck marching is a fitting tribute to the men who died.

“One of the guys said earlier there’s nothing that’s going to bring them more honor, in a sense, than a really complicated, long, arduous journey, that’s full of physical suffering,” he said.

“But in all seriousness, though, there’s not enough that we can do to bring these guys honor, to bring all of our brothers honor,” he added. “And this is about bringing them home.”

Starting their more-than 770-mile trek in Navarre, they marched north through Georgia, up Highway 84 through Long and Liberty counties and eventually connected with Highway 17 to march through Richmond Hill and Savannah.

Just before midnight Tuesday, a team of marchers was met by flag-waving, cheering residents at the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market near Allenhurst. Soldiers from Fort Stewart were also there to ruck with them.

Sgt. Tyler Bitner, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, was there with three other soldiers from his unit to support the marchers.

“Just to show these guys support because they’ve been walking for a long time,” Bitner said. “And 12 miles to us isn’t anywhere near how far they went. So they’ve been putting time and effort into this to show support, so we’re trying to do the same thing.”

Spc. Shawn Harris, one of the soldiers with Bitner, said that they were not going to let the ruck marchers go past Fort Stewart without getting support.

The teams that were not marching Wednesday morning were invited to the Daniel Defense Company’s plant in Ridgeland, South Carolina. The company, based in Black Creek, is known for its firearms, parts and attachments.

The marchers toured the facility and participated in the assembly of an M4A1 rifle that will be auctioned at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Friday to raise money for the Brothers in Arms Foundation.

“It says a lot about Daniel Defense and for them to support us both at work and in our personal time, when we’re honoring our brothers says a lot about them,” Harris said.

Two of the marchers are women who are not only honoring the loved ones they lost in the accident, but the spouses and families the seven Marines left behind.

Destiny Flynn, the wife of Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, and Erika Hipple, the fiancée of Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, said they trained together before the start of the march.

“For us, I think it’s more emotionally draining,” Flynn said of the ruck marching, “’cause we’re thinking a lot about the reasons why we’re doing it and we’re just trying to …”

“Keep it together,” Hipple finished.

“Keep it together, and we just want this legacy to never die,” Flynn said. “Because there’s children involved, and there’s other wives that we’re representing them, too.”

While on this journey they learned that “we’re much stronger than we really thought we were,” Flynn said, and being physically active has helped them deal with their pain.

Hipple said she was grateful to the men who had left their families and jobs to come join them to honor their men.

“I know that we appreciate that, and I know the other five women that can’t be here appreciate that more than anything,” she said.

The final destination of the 21 marchers is Camp Lejeune, where they will hand over a paddle that survived the crash, and adorned with dog tags of the fallen, to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion commanding officer, Lt. Col. Craig Wolfenbarger. They are expected to arrive this week.

“The paddle that was recovered from the crash site was one of the only physically intact pieces and the paddle has a certain (symbolism), a certain closeness to us as a community,” Aaron said. “And so it’s fitting that we take that and wrap it and bring it home to North Carolina where it belongs.”

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