By Bruce Karnick In 2015, Tom Wright was leaving the YMCA in Hastings on Memorial Day when the idea hit him. “I had a moment of, you know, I should do something more. I am an Army Veteran, I served …
By Bruce Karnick
In 2015, Tom Wright was leaving the YMCA in Hastings on Memorial Day when the idea hit him. “I had a moment of, you know, I should do something more. I am an Army Veteran, I served with many great guys, and unfortunately, some didn’t make it back. I should do more to honor them and do something for the Holiday.”
Wright, an eight-year Vet who served in Kosovo and other non-combat roles, understands how fortunate he is never being put into harms way. A fact that weighs on him with a sense of indebtedness, adding to the feeling as though the holiday was losing its meaning in a way. The commercialization of so many holidays is watering things down in a lot of ways. People seem to be about the time off, the shopping specials they can get, or getting to the cabin. Not the actual meaning of many of the holidays, but especially the summer ones like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Fourth of July and so on. Yes, people do know who those holidays are for, but Wright felt the extra attention was needed.
“I was like, so what do I do? What's going to be the next step? Immediately the light bulb went on for a walk, a long road march is what we called them in the army. Because I'm an Army veteran of seven years I did three years active duty for two years in the National Guard, and part of our training, we'd have to carry our rucksacks and Kevlar, our weapons and everything, and we'd have to walk you know sometimes it could be 12 miles it could be 20 miles and we did up to 30 miles. And I thought what how about doing a road march and honor them on Memorial Day, and bunch of US veterans get together and do a long walk and go about it that way,” explained Wright.
Wright has always loved the views along Highway 35 in Wisconsin, a section that is part of the Great River Scenic Road. That section of road is a favorite route of many road trippers, especially those on two wheels, full of twists and turns, hills and valleys and spectacular views. He felt that route would be perfect, but how long of a stretch is it? After looking up the route he had in mind, he discovered it would be about 28 miles.
“I've done that before 30 miles so you know this will be a little easier not carrying heavy weapon and not wearing a helmet or anything so why not? Let's go for it, we'll try it out,” chuckled Wright.
In 2016, the March for Them became a reality. Wright contacted a buddy and things were rolling. The two decided to reach out to others to see how many they could get. Dean Markuson caught word of Wrights efforts and helped spread the word among area organizations and with local media. Minnesota Coaches provided a free shuttle for marchers to Red Wing and the group was off.
“We somehow made it with one support vehicle we got a guy in a Toyota Prius, Jeff Bruce. Yeah, that's what that was our support vehicle. The first year was one little Toyota Prius with a stack with a bunch of bottled water, warm bottled water, and, and some snacks. He followed us all throughout the entire way and he's done that every year since.” Said Wright.
Jeff Bruce’s brother, Brian, has walked with the group each year since the start, which is where Jeff became involved. 11 to 11 and a half hours is what the 2016 march lasted, all with Bruce’s support. Once they arrived in Hastings, Wright gave a candid, off the cuff speech at the Rotary Pavilion and they went to the Legion for dinner.
Since then, things have expanded and improved. The number of organizers, marchers and businesses involved have grown. Schlomka’s now provides portable restrooms at each of the eight “rest areas” along with businesses that provide beverages, snacks and smiles at east stop. Minnesota Coaches still provides the shuttle in the morning and Bruce still follows the group with emergency supplies, and any new memorial markers to be placed that year.
Before the March starts, volunteers place the previous years markers at the same rest area as before, but newly nominated and accepted markers are placed by the person that nominated them. At that time, the person that did the nomination places the marker and gives a brief speech about why they nominated them. Using the nomination process from marchers helps the walk grow organically and makes sure it’s a personal experience for those walking, enhancing the “why we march” factor according to Wright. They do have markers for each branch that talks about their numbers of casualties.
“The last I checked it is over 625,000 men and women that have made the ultimate sacrifice,” adds Wright.
With this being the sixth annual march, towns along the route and those that drive by the marchers are recognizing what is going on more and more. People wave, honk, slowdown, take pictures and talk about themarch.
Normal years, the end of the march has food and beverages served at the Rotary Pavilion along with live music for a celebration.
“I want to thank you guys, [media] and thank the community for all your support and attention for this. It definitely would not be the event it is without the support of Hastings; this town has been really really great about stepping up and providing support,” a humble Wright said.
There is still time to offer your support. Register to walk at www.marchforthem.org, drive the route on Memorial Day and show your support to the marchers by honking and waving, donate, or simply show up at the end of the day and cheer the group on as they arrive. The planned arrival time is 5:30 at the Rotary Pavilion. No live music or food is planned for this year due to COVID precautions, but the hope is that returns next year. There will still be a presentation at the pavilion including the National Anthem and some speakers.