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Desert Hike Honors Soldiers of the Bataan Death March

For the last 30 years in the High Desert of New Mexico, officials have organized an annual march in honor of the brave soldiers captured by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in 1942.

Known as the Bataan Memorial Death March, it draws thousands of people—soldiers, veterans and civilians alike—from across the nation.

In Texas, it draws members of our very own Affinity Partner Texas VFW. So this week, we interviewed participant Dan West, a U.S. Marine veteran and now state adjutant/quartermaster for Texas VFW, about his experience on the march. Here’s what he had to say:

How is the VFW involved in the event?

Several of us last year saw where one of our national leaders, a Desert Storm veteran, was signed up for it and that the national VFW was the primary sponsor. So, we jumped in and formed a Texas VFW team of Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

How many times have you taken part in the march?

Last year was my second year. Both times, it was a great experience for comradery with friends and for making new ones. I’m looking forward to this next year, as we (Texas VFW) plan on having a water stop along the route for those who want to participate but don’t want to walk.

How far is the hike, and what’s it like?

There are two courses. One is a full 26.2-mile marathon, and the other is an honorary one that’s 14.2 miles. When I was younger, I took part in Iron Man triathlons, and I’m in no hurry to do the 26-mile course. I prefer the other. It’s challenging enough to whet my appetite for adventure.

Both courses are in the High Desert with rugged mountains close by and in the distance. The landscape is beautiful, rugged and adventurous, all at the same time. Both times that I took part, the morning temperatures started out in the 30s and then climbed to over 100 degrees by mid-afternoon.

What kind of prep did you have to do to get ready for the march?

My first year, I didn’t prep, and when I made it to mile 7, I was ecstatic I’d made it that far. I was regretting it by mile 10, though, as my legs started to cramp so bad I had to take Advil. My second year, I walked 3 miles a day, four times a week on a treadmill and had absolutely no problems. I’d suggest training by at least walking several times a week for at least 3 miles each time.

What was the biggest challenge about the march?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is in your own head. When you first think about the distance, it doesn’t seem so far. Then you realize just how long it takes to walk even 3 miles on a treadmill or through your neighborhood. The unprepared—those with ill-fitting clothing and shoes—get frequent blisters and rashes.

Once you’re past the mental block, and you get out there and see 70 and 80-year-olds walking, veterans with one or both legs missing, participants wearing gas masks and fire helmets, kids wearing 40-pound packs while running—well, barely running …. Once you see all this, you forget about your own mental blocks. You get caught up in the excitement, telling yourself, “If they can, I can.”

What was the best part about the march? And why is it important?

For me, the most rewarding part was the process, from start to finish. I enjoy being out and able to participate in the march and enjoy the challenge of walking 14.2 miles at my own pace out in nature, watching others pass me or passing them.

I think it’s important for several reasons. For one, you get to honor the service and sacrifice of the original veterans of the World War II Bataan Death March. Second, you get the challenge and excitement of the event. And three, you’re able to prove to yourself that, if needed, you could still walk that far—even though some actually run it.

And watching the veterans with missing and prosthetic legs finish is very heartwarming and inspiring. They may be hurt, but they are by no means out of the fight.

Any funny stories?

Last year, one of our team members made it a big deal that he was going to wear his old cammie fatigues from when he was in the service. The day of the march, he shows up in almost brand-new-looking blue jeans saying his old cammie trousers must have shrunk.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d encourage anyone to do this, as it is age appropriate from 5 to 105. I promise you’ll have a great time, and at least you’ll be able to tell people at work the next day that you did something more than just sit around and watch TV.

At Veteran Energy, we salute all of the brave men who fought and died or were captured defending America on the Bataan Peninsula during World War II. And we’re proud of everyone who takes part in the yearly memorial march. Click here to learn more about signing up for the hike or becoming a sponsor.