Soldier’s Journey To Bataan Memorial Death March
by U.S. Army Pfc. Joshua Taeckens
April 9, 2023
On a bitterly cold, desert morning at the
White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, U.S. Army South Soldier, Sgt.
Aaron Thomas, a geospatial plans and analysis team leader in the
512th Engineer Detachment, stood nervously on the starting line of
the Bataan Memorial Death March on March 19, 2023.
“I knew it was gonna be challenging, and I
didn't want to fail,” Thomas said with uncertainty. “But hearing
stories about how bad it was for other people, you know, I kind of
let that weigh on me. The furthest I had rucked during my training
was only 10 miles.”
According to The Bataan Memorial Death
March website, the event is a 26.2-mile ruck march to remember the
roughly 75,000 U.S. and Filipino service members who became
prisoners of war (POW) in the Philippines during World War II and
were forced to march approximately 65 miles through the jungle to
confinement camps by their Japanese captors.
Thomas held his
detachment’s guidon, but a friend suggested he put it in his 35
pound ruck sack. Instead, he chose the challenge of carrying it the
distance and listened to the memory of his older brother’s voice
telling him not to take the easy route.
March 19, 2023 - U.S. Army
South Soldier, Sgt. Aaron Thomas (middle), a plans and
analysis team leader in the 512th Geospatial Engineer
Detachment, carries his detachment guidon during the Bataan Memorial Death March
at White Sands Missile Range New Mexico. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Joshua Taeckens)
“Whatever it is that I’m
doing, it’s the memory of my older brother’s voice telling me not to
quit that has always been there to get me through the tough times
and tough decisions,” he admired.
Thomas, from Las Vegas, New Mexico, is no stranger to long
journeys carrying either a mental or physical weight, or both.
Though his family members all found various levels of success in
life, through determination and resilience he was the first to earn
his high school diploma.
Thomas noted that he was held back
a grade twice in high school and enrolled in a dual credit program
in order to graduate on time, forcing him to attend night classes at
a community college just outside of town. This challenging time of
his life was compounded when he broke his foot in a skateboarding
accident and was forced to use crutches to get around. One night
during class, a blizzard rolled in, his phone died and he was unable
to call for a ride home.
“I just started walking with my toes
exposed out the end of my cast,” recounted Thomas. “The snow was so
bad that I couldn’t see the light poles, I fell a couple of times, I
had to hop a cattle fence, and I kept thinking I needed to move
faster because if I kept shoveling all this snow into my cast, I’m
going to get frostbite. It was the worst three miles of my life.”
Thomas said he reminded himself why he was going to school in
order to keep motivating him to keep moving forward: to set an
example for his younger siblings.
“Walking back through that
snow, I was thinking, like, why am I suffering,” he remarked. “But I
thought that if I didn’t change something, my little brothers and my
little sister were just going to live the same sad story and drop
out. I wanted to break that cycle.”
Thomas pushed through the
snow that night and moved on to graduate, even achieving an
associate's degree and a certificate in welding. His younger
siblings moved on to graduate as well, with one of his brothers
getting two degrees and becoming a pastor, his other brother joining
the U.S. Navy and his sister becoming a sous-chef.
thought back to that turbulent, stormy night during the cold morning
of the Bataan Memorial Death March and was enkindled.
thought about how I had already walked through a blizzard, and that
was way worse than the morning of the march,” he claimed.
Even with his previous experiences and the training for the march,
Thomas said he had doubts and reflected on the few people who
doubted his ability to complete the 26.2-mile course. But he looked
at the other competitors and listened to the story of the Bataan
POWs who marched more than double that amount with a determination
The event began and Thomas stepped off on the long
trek, befriending a fellow Soldier and finding motivation in his
“The first several miles were uphill and I walked with
a 57 year old Army Lieutenant Colonel who had served 11 years in the
Marine Corps before switching to the Army,” he said. “Seeing him out
there gave me a lot of inspiration, because if he can do it at his
age, I can do it at 33 years old.”
He used that inspiration
when fatigue set in around the halfway mark of the course.
definitely reached muscle failure a few times, just every muscle
wanting to give up,” he revealed. “Being out there alone at times
was the biggest challenge though, but I met a lot of cool people
along the way. Some stranger even gave me a shot of pickle juice
which helped me a lot with cramping.”
Thomas said his
favorite part of the event was the views of the mountains, hills and
desert, but they were starkly different from the views during his
past marches as a civilian. He found more influence from other times
he had to carry heavy weight on long marches with dreary city views.
After he earned his welding certificate, he found a welding job
in Los Angeles, bought a car and moved out to California. But an
unfortunate event led him to seek change.
“I invited my
friend to come visit me out in California, and one night I lent him
my car,” he remembered. “He parked it on the street during a street
sweeping day and it got towed and impounded.”
Thomas said he
found himself on a five mile walk everyday to and from work, but
this time he carried a heavy load.
“I didn’t have a secure
place to keep my tools or welder at the job site, so I put all my
tools in a backpack and carried my welder,” he remarked. “It sucked,
and it dawned on me that I could be getting paid to do this and have
other benefits in the Army. That was the straw that broke the
Thomas said he took inventory of what he was
fighting for in his life: a meager wage, a tiny apartment and a job
with no benefits. He knew he was cut out for something different and
decided to enlist in the Army as a geospatial engineer.
on the Bataan Memorial Death March course, as his muscles failed him
and his hands swelled, he remembered the contrast between his past
and his present. He also remembered he was trying to set an example
as a leader for the Soldiers he was leading back at his unit.
“They may not be my little brothers and sisters, but I treat
them like they are and I lead by example,” he said with
gratification. “I feel like if I can do stuff like the Bataan at 33
years old, it should be a walk in the park for some of these younger
Thomas ran the last few miles, fighting to the
very end. As he approached the finish line, he was surprised to see
a couple faces he recognized.
March 19, 2023 - U.S. Army South Soldier, Sgt. Aaron Thomas,
a plans and analysis team leader in the 512th Geospatial
Engineer Detachment, carries his detachment guidon across
the finish line of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White
Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Joshua Taeckens)
“I was thinking, that old guy
over there looks familiar,” he said with a grin. “ It was my dad and
then I saw my mom. My dad was still hooked up to his oxygen tank, so
I knew his journey to the finish line was probably a lot worse than
mine. That moment made me really appreciate the people that I have
in my life.”
His dad, Keith Thomas, a disabled Navy veteran
whose service was cut short when he was struck by a tractor-trailer,
claimed that it was a challenge to make it to the event, and it
almost didn't happen because of icy roads.
“We wanted to
surprise him and cheer him on, but we had some severe weather come
through,” said his dad wearily. “We told him we wanted to come down
there but because of the weather, things had changed. He had no idea
we were going to be there, and we were in the perfect spot as he was
coming around the corner to the finish.”
His dad expressed
that it was an absolute joy to see his son cross the finish line.
“It was an apex moment in my life to see him and see what he had
accomplished, because it was a grueling course,” his father said
with warmth in his voice. “Some of the things he has done in the
Army give me a whole new respect for his service and for the Army.”
The pride his parents feel for their son’s accomplishments carry
over to Thomas as a feeling of self-assurance.
“I don't think
there's anything that I can't do, and I haven't failed myself yet,”
he said with satisfaction. “Maybe one day I'll get to that point
where my body fails me, I mean, I can't say that'll never happen. It
just hasn't happened yet, and I don’t expect it to happen any time
Thomas said he did a 12-mile ruck march with his
Soldiers less than a week after completing the Bataan Memorial Death
March in preparation for the Norwegian foot march.
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