WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, New Mexico -- A few weeks ago, I
edited a commentary written by Navy Cross recipient Sgt. Maj. Justin
Lehew, sergeant major of Training and Education Command at Marine
Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. The story was about his experience
walking the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sand Missile Range,
New Mexico in 2014.
It was a well-written piece and I enjoyed
reading it. Little did I know, in a few weeks I would have the
opportunity to share the experience with him and two other Marines.
The topography of New Mexico is similar to Helmand Province,
Afghanistan, but with more rocks and desert vegetation. It looked
like the place was sort of removed from time. Old vehicles from the
1950s and 60s sit in the yards of rundown houses and shutdown
More than 5,000 marchers participated the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sand Missile Range, New Mexico March 22,
2015. The event is the 73rd commemoration of the Bataan Death March when more than 60,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war endured a 60-mile forced march. These men endured severe physical abuse at the hands of their captors the Japanese Imperial army, many succumbing to the wounds and abuse they endured on the trek. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin M. Boling)
Upon arrival at the airport I rode with Sgt. Chris
Parnelli, a financial management resource analyst for
Training and Education Command and Cpl. Cody Jones, a driver
for the commanding general of the same command, on a trip
from El Paso, Texas. We joked about the state of New Mexico
being the land of enchantment. You see scant life until you
pass through Las Cruces, New Mexico. Rundown buildings and
broke down vehicles are seemingly misplaced in the
mountainous, desert landscape.
My cohorts and I rode
through the desert toward White Sands Missile Range, New
Mexico. To say the installation is secluded would be an
understatement. It is nestled at the base of two large
mountain ranges with nothing around it for 50 miles. Its
isolation is expected since it was the testing ground of the
Trinity Project, the test of the Atomic Bomb during World
Why White Sands?
Sgt. Maj. Lehew arrived the following evening and
contacted us; he referred to us as his boys. We made plans
to go and visit some of the sites, which I thought was a
novel idea seeing there was nothing around within eyeshot.
Sergeant Major said that after our first stop we would
understand why they call this place White Sands. We packed
into Sergeant Majors black ram pick-up he was renting and
started to make our way to White Sands National Monument.
After about 30 minutes or so, we started to see
12-foot-tall dunes dotted with desert vegetation. You could
see through the scraggly plants the purest white sand
beneath. After a short stop at the museum located at the
national park, I learned the color is a factor of the sands
consisting nearly entirely of gypsum, the mineral found in
dry wall. These dunes of white spread for 200 miles in all
directions and can be seen from space. The sand is held in
place do to the large underground lake, so these pristine
dunes never shift outside of the circumference of this white
blemish on the face of the planet.
Meeting Ham the Astrochimp
Next point of the tour was hidden in the city of
Alamagordo, New Mexico, which although secluded and out of
the way actually holds a vast treasury of history.
parked in front of a beautiful, golden-glass-gilded,
cube-shaped building in the hills overlooking the city time
forgot. Walking up the steps toward the building there we
numerous static displays of rockets, engines, and
observation equipment. After getting an eye full of the
outside, we entered the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
The museum is home of the International Space Hall of
Fame pays tribute to all who dedicated their lives to space
exploration or at least contributed to the overall ideal.
Every single artifact, from engines the size of cars to
space toilets, could be observed or touched. I didn't touch
the toilet, of course.
The museum is also the final
resting of arguably one of America's greatest heroes, Ham,
the ‘Astrochimp.' Ham was the first Hominidae launched into
space by NASA, Jan. 31, 1961.
His remains are buried
under a small monument stone. Sergeant Major said, “ It
truly is a shame what happened to this American hero. He was
the first monkey in space and he gets buried in Alamogordo.”
The little train that could for Bataan
I will preface this with saying although I enjoy staying active
and outdoors, this event was to date one of the hardest physical
experiences of my life. My heart goes out to my brothers and soon to
be sisters in the infantry, who hike like this on the regular.
Every painful step of this 26.2-mile hike gave me only a small
taste of what the 60,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war
experienced at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army in April of
1942 in the Philippines.
The opening ceremony of the event
culminated with an honorary roll call of the Bataan Death March
survivors. Before this segment of the ceremony, the men were pallid
statues covered with blankets being assisted by their accompanying
caregivers. As soon as their names rang out breaking the pin-drop
hearing silence of the cool desert morning air, their voices
mustered so much power.. My back straightened and the event took on
a reality I had not experienced while training our traveling around
Southern New Mexico.
Not long after, myself and the other
Marines from the National Capital Region began our long trip on foot
wearing plate carriers and whatever else we thought we might need to
overcome our small taste of Bataan Death March. Of course I wore my
trustee camera bag armed with my weapon of choice a Canon 5D Mark
The first seven miles, the speeches, survivor roll call,
taps and the cannon fire invigorated me. Soon I wore palm size
blisters across the balls of my feet, which slowed me to a near
snails pace. At this point Sgt. Parnelli, an avid marathon runner,
took off like he had wings on his feet and I would not see him again
till the end of the march. I had to keep going. I wanted to finish
and I knew it was going to get worse. I had entered the “little
train that could” mode.
I walked with Sergeant Major for the
majority of the march. We spoke about leadership, family and the
future. I am not much of a fan boy, but I can honestly say he is man
I am proud to look up to for the rest of my life. The humility, care
and strength he exudes is something I want to grow and emulate in
myself. My personal favorite trait is a realness, which I think can
be often lost as you gain rank and stack up accomplishment after
accomplishment. Also his father was part of the D-Day invasion in
World War II, and his brother managed the Grateful Dead, yes Dead
Heads, you just read that.
Sgt. Maj. Justin Lehew, the Training and Education Command Sergeant Major, speaks to a few Marine during the start of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sand Missile Range, New Mexico March 22. The event is the 73rd commemoration of the Bataan Death March when more than 60,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war endured a 60-mile forced march. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin M. Boling)
After about the first nine miles
you start heading up a road toward the mountains. I thought the
place was desolate but a I continued to walk up and down the sandy
inclines, which circled a small mountain, I was certain I was not in
Kansas anymore. I sat down to change boots when Cpl. Jones caught up
and he saw my feet. We laughed when he said, after seeing the giant
blood filled blisters on feet that his encouragement was
halve-hearted and really he was saying, oh man this guy is not going
to make it.
The cool morning air was violently ripped away
from me and replaced with the baking heat of the desert. I emptied
and filled up my camel back three times through miles 16 to 20. The
water was mainly mental and to maintain a healthy core temperature.
Any nourishment I put into my body at this point was not going to
help my aching back and cramping legs.
I chugged along slowly
until mile 20. Sergeant Major had warned all of us about the
two-mile-long inclined sandpit, which came up swiftly after the mile
marker. True to his word, this segment of the course was a game
ender for many marchers. Search and Rescue, border patrol and
medical personnel patrolled this area constantly. It was not an
uncommon sight to see them load up with the body of a broken
After a grueling hour or so I made it to the long
road toward the missile range. My legs had all locked up. My feet
were numb from pain. My face was hot to the touch, but I still
continued. I wondered how the men on the Bataan Death March felt.
They knew that any slowing down or outcry would earn them a bayonet
in their ribs or sound blow courtesy of their captors.
finally made it to the low stone and mortar wall, which separated
base housing and I could see the two water towers marking the last
mile or so of my trek. At the first water tower I caught up to
Sergeant Major, who looked pleased to know all his boys made it to
the end. He later let me know he could tell how much pain I was in,
because I would shut my mouth long enough to grunt for a few hundred
yards or so and then continue with pleasantries. I love to talk,
okay, anyone, who knows me will tell you I am loud and I love to
learn about people.
I could see the final stretch. It was in
site I could hear the beep of the chip tracker signaling the record
of my journey through the desert. I saw Cpl. Jones, who yelled “good
job sergeant.” People were cheering and screaming.
finishing the race, Sergeant Major and his boys, which I am proud to
be, formed a reflexive security perimeter of sorts and laid on our
packs next to the finish line. We all just passed out right there.
We all woke 30 minutes later to Sergeant Major smiling as he said
Marines could sleep anywhere.
After 10 hours spent wandering
through the desert, sleep did not come easy when I laid down that
night. My lower body ached and all I could think about was, What if
I had to march knowing I may never see my loved ones like the
prisoners, who walked the 60 miles urged on by the Japanese Imperial
All I had to do was reach the finish line. The men, who
survived the death march, were loaded onto unmarked boats, some of
which were sunk by U.S. vessels, which had no idea fellow Americans
and Filipino troops were aboard.
I finally found sleep and
when I woke up I could walk again. I took steps much like a baby
gazelle first learning to walk, shaky and knocked kneed. The limp
reminded of the physical and mental trial I endured and the
minuscule taste of pain the Marines from TECOM and I shared with,
and in memory of, the Battling Bastards of Bataan.
By U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Justin M. Boling
Defense Media Activity
The U.S. Marines
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