More than 30 veterans and volunteers lined up at Fernley’s Out of Town Park Monday morning, some walkers adjusting their rucksacks, others unfurling flags to lead the marchers along the city’s eastern business route to the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
For the past eight days, scores of veterans, student veterans from Truckee Meadows Community College and University of Nevada, Las Vegas and volunteers tightened up their boot laces, put on their sunscreen and marched in increments of either 6 or 12 miles along a 370-mile route that began May 20 at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City and through five rural counties including Churchill on Friday and Saturday before ending at Fernley.
Another piece of precious cargo accompanied the Operation Battle Born march. Two rucksacks carrying almost 7,000 dog tags, each one representing a fallen warrior — including 57 Nevadans — who has died since the United States was plunged into a Global War on Terrorism nearly 17 years ago. The UNLV veterans met their Northern Nevada counterparts at Goldfield after several days of marching along U.S. Highway 95, and then their route eventually took them to Gabbs before cutting across the quiet, yet desolate landscape toward U.S. Highway 50 and Sand Mountain, an overnight stop. On Saturday, the veterans and volunteers marched along U.S. Highway 50 and then south on Macari Lane into Fallon before camping for the night west of the Oasis of Nevada.
On Memorial Day, the veterans presented two ruck sacks of dog tags to Brig. Gen. William “Bill” Burks, who accepted them on behalf of Gov. Brian Sandoval. For Burks, he said it was an amazing feat for the walkers to traverse the state to bring more awareness to their fellow veterans.
Donald Stockton, president of the University of Nevada Veterans Alumni Chapter, told guests at the NNVMC the march brought healing to those who participated.
“Our bodies are feeling the effect of our mission, but the pain will subside,” said the former Navy Seabee who was once deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. “This was born out of a labor of love for those not with us today.”
Prior to the group walking the last several miles to the only veterans’ cemetery in Northern Nevada, Stockton said the rucksack march exceeded expectations.
“We had a lot of resources behind us, and the amount of community support groundswelled, and it was awesome,” he said after taking a video of the marchers ahead of him with his cellphone. “Now we’re here, and everyone’s safe. We literally did this 370-mile march without serious injuries … we’re safe, and we could not be better.”
The idea grew over a beer at the annual conference of the Student Veterans of America in San Antonio, Texas. Felipe Gutierrez, who marched into the cemetery carrying the United States flag, said representatives from the Truckee Meadows Veterans Club of TMCC and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebel Veterans liked the idea of a combined march to bring more awareness to their fallen comrades.
“This is a very solemn and a very special mission, and we wanted to bring more awareness,” said TMCC’s pre-admission associate. “This is the true meaning of what Memorial Day is. That’s what it’s about — remembering our fallen.”
Gutierrez said all veterans from every military branch participated in the march, and during the last 2 miles to the cemetery, a police escort provided by the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office and Nevada Highway Patrol led the marchers. Operation Battle Born accepted donations and gave the money to Honor Flight Nevada.
Brett Palmer, commander of the Nevada Veterans Coalition honor guard, said their gesture was made out of brotherly love for the veterans’ community. Since the 1970s when many service men and women were coming home from Vietnam to cold receptions, Palmer said today’s acceptance of veterans has greatly improved and public opinion has changed for the better.
“Seven-thousand dog tags represents 7,000 lives,” Palmer said, reflecting on the deaths since 9/11. “Everyone was supporting their march.”
Both Lizy Liemandt, a Nevada Army National Guard soldier who lives in Douglas County, and retired guardsman Greg Aragon, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3396 in Sparks, both served together at Kandahar in 2011.
“It’s really meaningful,” Liemandt said. “I love rucking, and this is my way to show my respects for those we lost. I had a good friend do this with me, and that made it special.”
Aragon, who was the 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion’s first sergeant at Kandahar, said he was impressed how the younger generation of veterans continues to honor those who served with and before them. For Aragon, the deaths of three Nevada guardsmen in 2005 vividly remains with him.
“Every one of them is a significant loss,” said Aragon about the deaths of fellow guardsmen, “but especially when it’s closer to home.”
Chief Warrant Officer John Michael Flynn of Sparks and Sgt. Patrick Dana Stewart of Fernley were killed when their CH-47 helicopter crashed in Zabul Province, Afghanistan on Sept. 25, and Spc. Anthony Cometa of Henderson was killed In Iraq in June, one day after his 21st birthday.
When Liemandt and Aragon spent most of 2011 at Kandahar, the constant reminder of death became a daily occurrence because when a deceased service member was awaiting travel to the United States, the flags remained lowered.
“We didn’t raise the flag from half-staff for something like 48 days straight,” Liemandt recalled. “It (the ruck march) is for those guys.”
Marine veteran Andres Luna, a 2010 graduate from Bishop Manogue High School in Reno, said he lost friends who deployed to Afghanistan.
“This is a way for me to honor them,” said Luna, who marched 12 miles across Churchill County carrying the Marine Corps flag. “I feel guilty because I didn’t get to deploy, but I’m here for them.”
Likewise, Alexandria Sawin, president of UNLV’s veterans club, never deployed to a war zone when she served in the U.S. Air Force.
Sawin, who still serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Nellis Air Force Base east of Las Vegas, walked three 10-mile increments and a 2-mile increment for the handoff.
“I never lost anybody I knew who was killed in action, but I have seen friends affected by it,” she said.
Sawin said she has friends displaying suicidal tendencies, and that concerns her as much as those who paid the ultimate price.
“I did it mostly for them and the fallen soldiers,” she said, reflecting on the march. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”