July 28, 2011 1:09:00 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Ten years have passed, but Maj. Joseph Ringer of Columbus Air Force Base remembers the day as if it was yesterday. He was on a bus in Texas with his fellow airmen, headed to the Security Forces Academy at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. They were watching television when a newscaster announced that a passenger plane had hit the World Trade Center''s North Tower.
It was terrible. Horrific. Unthinkable. They wondered how such an accident could happen. Less than 20 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, and suddenly, they understood: This was no accident. The lives of every man, woman and child in America would never be the same again.
Ringer, who was named commander of CAFB''s 14th Security Forces Squadron in June, has spent a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the upcoming anniversary of 9/11. He is one of 21 members of CAFB''s squadron -- and 23 Security Forces units nationwide -- participating this week in the second annual "Ruck March to Remember," a 2,181-mile trek from San Antonio to Ground Zero.
As they slowly wind their way northward, they remember the nearly 3,000 people who died at the World Trade Center, and later that day, in a third attack at the Pentagon and a fourth attempted attack which ended with a fiery crash in a Pennsylvania field after passengers attempted to wrest control from the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93.
As they trudge through cooling rains and soaring heat, they remember the 6,000-plus service members since that day who have given their lives to -- and for -- the cause of freedom. Ten of those who died were members of the Security Forces; 100 more Security Forces have been injured.
The march -- the brainchild of Maj. Jim Alves, the 4th Security Forces Squadron commander at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina -- began July 12 in San Antonio, with individual units selecting 140-mile legs of the journey, which will conclude Sept. 11 in New York City. Members from CAFB began their section of the trip Sunday in Alexandria, La., and conclude today in Brookhaven.
Columbus Airman 1st Class Chase Hedrick, who is participating, said at least two members of his unit lost friends in the World Trade Center attacks. Another had a friend who lost both parents there.
Though the march is physically demanding (they cover more than 20 miles a day, each carrying a 45-pound rucksack), they do what they have always done: They support each other, whether that means making sure no one walks alone or sharing tips on how to prevent blisters.
"There''s tons of camaraderie," Hedrick said. "Everybody''s doing a real good job of taking care of each other."
Ringer said though they are all in good physical condition, there are some things that simply can''t be replicated in training, like coping with the elements and hilly terrain. A brief rain shower was a welcome respite.
"The rain was refreshing," he said. "It kept us cool. The heat -- there was no getting used to that. You can''t simulate it."
Along the route, people in each community, giving a glimpse of Southern hospitality and American patriotism, have welcomed the squadron. Residents in towns along the way have offered dinner and cases of water. Others have lined the streets, waving flags and cheering.
For Ringer, who moved to Columbus in June after a stint at the Pentagon, the reception has been eye opening.
"We didn''t expect the amount of support we received from the public," he said. "It''s really done a lot to bolster my patriotism."
Today, as they reach mile 140 in Brookhaven, the Columbus team will pass the blue guidon to the next unit. But before the flag leaves their hands, they will attach a single streamer to represent their involvement. When the guidon reaches its final destination at Ground Zero, it will bear 23 strands of gold.
From Texas to Louisiana, from Louisiana to Mississippi, from Mississippi to Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York -- the guidon will have traveled.
The ruck march ends Sept. 11. The journey continues.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.