I had the pleasure of working with Cindy Campbell on my next book “Among Heroes,” which features my former teammate and BUD/S classmate Chris Campbell (KIA 8-6-11). Chris was an amazing guy, and I’m so glad Cindy agreed to share this personal story with us.
Enjoy, and thank you, Cindy.
I recently had an opportunity to participate in an amazing event with Wounded Warrior Project in memory of my brother, Chris. It proved to be my anchor during a difficult time.
The tragic events of the past few years seem to come crashing in on me unexpectedly. One day, following an emotional evening, I received a phone call from Brian with Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). He had called to tell me that they were going to be taking a group of wounded warriors to walk in the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, and he wanted to walk in memory of my brother. He then extended an invitation to me to join them, to which I promptly replied, “Yes, I’ll do whatever you guys are doing.”
After our phone call ended, I sat in my car and looked at the picture I have of my brother on the dashboard. “Do you know how much I needed that?” I asked him. I think he not only knew, but I also believe that he is continuing to work his magic on the “other side” – this time through Brian at WWP!
Upon arriving home, I googled the Bataan Memorial Death March and my first thought was, well, you choose whatever choice words would come to mind when you check it out (Bataan Memorial Death March). Needless to say, I was a bit freaked out, for I had committed to walking 26.2 miles in the sun and sand in what is known as the “windy season” in the desert of New Mexico. Up to this point, I was running almost five miles and hiking close to four.
I had some work to do!
A training program is provided on the website, and I was already two months behind. So, I created my own amped-up version. This meant I had six weeks to roughen my feet up a bit in an attempt to prepare for a desert march while training in the cold, damp and rainy weather characteristic of Seattle winters.
Shortly after the call from Brian, I started a contract assignment at an amazing organization. They have an African proverb on one of their walls that I have the privilege to walk by on a daily basis. I found it to be very fitting during this time.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
It is at this point that I extend many thanks to my friend Mike and his dog, Tilly, my new friends Morgain and Marsha and a great hiking/vegetarian group for partnering with me on my accelerated training program! I am also thankful to Brenna and little ones for meeting me early on Saturday mornings at Wear Blue, and her husband Nate for his guidance to help me prepare. To Mike for the super early ride to the airport and Derek for my ride home – thank you! On my longest walk where I did 14 of the 20 miles alone, I am very grateful for the many inspiring and motivating texts that I received throughout that solitary trek. To Ben and Travis, two young men who have bravely served our country and who are currently working through their recovery process – the two of you helped me keep going that day! Thank you for your service to our country!!
As I approached mile 18 on my training walk, I had considered stopping because I had arrived back at my car and was tired and ready to be done. With a bit of self-coaching, I continued. Two things happened after I passed mile eighteen that reinforced my belief that my brother will always be with me in spirit, and his last request is one that I must continue to work to fulfill.
First, I heard the footsteps of a runner and turned around to see a young man. This is not an uncommon sight on this well-traveled path, but it was what he wore that caused me to do a double take. It is important to note that I was not in a military community, but in a rural area, yet here was someone wearing a long sleeve gray tee shirt and imprinted on it in the standard black letters was the branch of the service for which my brother proudly served: NAVY. I choose to believe that was a special moment where Chris worked through this young man and the circumstances of the day to let me know our sibling bond transcends this earthly life.
Although I was ready to quit, if I had not continued on, this experience would have been an opportunity missed. Symbolic of my grief journey that has been unwanted, unwelcome, and unplanned, this casual meeting reminded me about the importance of taking one day at a time and to relish the moments of happiness when they do happen. Even though it has been very difficult, there is much to be said for putting one foot in front of the other as I learn to live my life without the physical presence of my brother.
With a half mile left, a cyclist and I exchanged a brief nod as he passed. Just as quickly, he turned around. We had crossed paths earlier in the day when I was sitting down changing socks and the duct tape on my feet in an attempt to prevent blisters. There was no cause for curiosity seeing a pair of boots by my side then. Now they were draped over my shoulder, and I was wearing running shoes. With a slight accent, he said, “I have to ask. I can see you are wearing shoes. There must be a story as to why you are carrying the boots.” I proceeded to share with him that they were my brother’s boots and told him about Chris’ last request. In turn, I was inspired. This young man told me that he had grown up in Zimbabwe and was so thankful to live in the United States. He said that most Americans have no idea how blessed they are to experience the freedoms we have in this country. He was grateful for our military, for my brother’s service and expressed great sympathy that Chris and our family had to pay the ultimate sacrifice. I could not have ended this walk being more proud of my brother for valiantly serving our country!
Finally the weekend of the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March arrived! Did my training help? My lung capacity from the hiking certainly did, but nothing quite prepared me for the constant sun, sand or wind in the desert of New Mexico. More importantly, I did not anticipate the overwhelming support, camaraderie and love I felt being surrounded by a group of amazing men and women who have benefited from the programs and services offered by Wounded Warrior Project.
The logo of WWP is one soldier carrying another. It is so much more than a picture – it is a living logo. Many soldiers who have been “carried” by WWP are now paying it forward to help their brothers and sisters in arms. My brother died and left this massive request, and through this he is letting our wounded warriors know that from the grave he is doing his best to carry them.
And, then there is me, just a sister who misses her brother beyond words, and is doing her best to make his last request a reality. Chris’ over-the-top goal has carried me through some pretty difficult times, and now the wounded warriors I have met are taking over where he left off. Each person I have had an opportunity to meet and hear their story has provided me with the motivation to keep moving forward because THEY are worth it!
I met Brian and Mike. They are both missing an arm. I met Ian. He had been severely burned. I met Abbie. She has suffered from PTSD and sexual trauma. I met Tim. He is missing a leg. I met Juan. He is missing an arm right below the elbow and the backs of his legs are missing pretty significant amounts of flesh. I met Andrew who has lost an eye. Their stories are real, and they are tragic; more so than I can convey here! Overall, I met approximately 20 wounded warriors – all of whom were walking in memory of my brother. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to spend time with each person but those with whom I did have an chance to hear about their personal experiences, I was inspired and humbled.
Before I proceed, I want to share that WWP is an apolitical organization. They are about the warrior, not the war. WWP is there to help our wounded warriors recalibrate, if you will, their lives that have been tragically affected after serving our country since September 11th. The men and women who have voluntarily joined the military to serve and protect us, if they are called upon to do so, have sacrificed a great deal. In trying to understand the motivation behind this career choice, I have asked many why they chose this path. I have heard on more than one occasion that they wanted to be a part of something greater than themselves. They wanted to feel like they were contributing and making a difference in the world. This reminds me of another quote that I see on a daily basis, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile” (Albert Einstein).
The day of the 25th annual Bataan Memorial Death March arrived. I had slept very little the night before, and as I traipsed through the halls of the hotel around midnight to the front desk the final time the security guard who could have been my grandpa asked, “Shouldn’t you be in bed young lady?” I was too excited to sleep but finally settled in and after a couple hours awoke to meet the WWP team in the lobby at 5:15 a.m. After about a 45 minute ride, we arrived at our destination. The desert is COLD in the morning and we stood huddled together shivering as we joined over 6,000 participants awaiting the arrival of the sun and the opening ceremonies to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those who were slaughtered in the REAL death march!
As we stood on the parade field, a beautiful American flag was flying above, overseeing the color guard as they marched before us. The first few verses of the National Anthem began to sound, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” The timing was perfect as the sun began to rise above the desert mountains. Then came the roll call. They were few. They were old. THEY HAD SURVIVED the horrors of a forced 60 mile death march that began on April 9th, 1942. We were there to march for THEM! We stood silently, reverently as a microphone was held to the lips of these now frail men and heard the strength they still possessed as each one gave a resounding “HERE” as his name was called.
They have been dubbed “The Battling Bastards of Bataan” because many were untrained, had weapons that didn’t work, and then they were abandoned to endure horrid conditions as POW’s for almost three years. A US war correspondent, Frank Hewlett, penned this poem:
“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.”
Those present on March 23rd, 2014 were there to let these survivors know that WE DO give a damn! And so we began the Memorial March filing by the survivors, shaking their hands and looking into their eyes acutely aware that the 26.2 miles ahead would pale in comparison to what they experienced.
Energy. Enthusiasm. Adrenaline. It was intangible but pervasive in each person present that morning as we set out. On my shoulder, I carried my brother’s boots. Next to my heart, his picture. On my back, I had the pictures of Jason, Gavin, Stefano, Vincent and Jonathan – each of them a brother of a fellow sibling I have met on my grief journey. Each of them died serving our country and have left a tremendous ache in the heart of the brothers and sisters left behind. And, I walked for them, too… Katelynn, Desirae, Sandra, Elizabeth, Sheila, Richelle, Rachel, Ashley – just a few of the sisters I have met who have loved and lost the “other” man in their lives. Men whom we adored as babies, argued with as teenagers and respected as adults. Our brothers with whom we shared a past, for a while a present and now a future of missed memories.
I met Ashley on a TAPS sibling retreat, and she told me something I didn’t understand at the time. I tucked it away though because she had walked this path before me. I am now beginning to comprehend what she said which in summary is, there will come a time when you don’t focus so much on the worst day of your life, the day your brother was killed. Instead, you will begin to learn how to celebrate his life and the time you did have together.
So I marched on knowing, I walked for those who died but was surrounded by those who live, taking baby steps myself as I learn how to live again, a different life, but a life to honor my brother, his sacrifice and the other men and women who have died serving our country. That was my brother’s last request – that we focus on those who DO come home to their families. And so I walked for Ben and Travis, too, whose pictures were also on my back.
The march continued. Sarah, with WWP, was my amazing walking partner throughout the entire day. All 11 HOURS, 21 minutes, and 23 seconds. At the last minute, someone had been unable to make it, and Sarah stepped up. She could have gone much faster but humored me and my strategy of strolling. In hindsight, this was not too bright on my part! That’s a long time to be upright and pounding sand. At about mile 21, Sarah and I stopped to get a Bataan pedicure J. We were planning to make it brief and wrap our feet with fresh, clean moleskin (no moles are harmed in the creation of this natural cotton fabric) to prepare for the infamous “sand pit” which was just ahead.
When we sat down, the temptation was too great. We were surrounded by fresh faced medical volunteers who offered to clean our feet and replace our bandages. I don’t know WHAT they used, but it was cool and invigorating as it washed some of the desert grime away that had accumulated in my shoes and between my toes. We set out refreshed with just over six miles left.
I felt a little trepidation upon entering the sand pit. Extra sand is brought in an attempt to reinforce how the men of Bataan suffered. For some, this is the point at which they say, “I’m done.” I looked at Sarah and suggested we pretend there was a beautiful ocean right around the corner. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I am sure she might have questioned my sanity at that point. Then we sang. Sarah, a great mom, rendered a most excellent version of the ABC song. I attempted a few verses from America, the Beautiful. And, we continued to walk – never forgetting, always remembering.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is one of the most well-staffed events in the United States. Although the sand pit was difficult, I knew that right around the corner there would be a medical tent, water and sports drinks, fruit and porta-potties. The survivors of Bataan didn’t have such luxuries! My father, who served two terms in Vietnam, didn’t have access to the amenities afforded us on March 23rd. Those who volunteer to serve and protect our country today, our international first responders – Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard – forego the comforts of home to ensure we do not experience another September 11th. We marched on!
The last couple miles found of us hunched over and doing what I refer to as the “senior shuffle.” It felt like my two big toenails were going to pop off at any minute. Race organizers had begun to send in vehicles to pick up those who could not take another step. The sun was preparing to bid the day goodbye. In addition to water and fruit, volunteers had trays of cookies; oreos had never tasted quite so good. Mile 26 had arrived! We could hear the supporters cheering the late arrivals. Among the bystanders were members of the WWP team who had finished early but returned to greet us. Sarah and I picked up our pace, and we crossed the finish line together!
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to walk with an amazing group of wounded warriors in Chris’ memory. My brother’s last request takes on a new and personal meaning when I meet those who have benefited from the many programs and services offered by Wounded Warrior Project. For me, he lives on through each service member helped as a result of his final wish (100,000 people donate to WWP). So far, almost 2,000 people have contributed to help Chris with his final mission. To each of my friends and colleagues, THANK YOU, for being a part of his legacy and sharing his story.
Proud Sister of Christopher George Campbell, US Navy
September 16, 1974 – 8/6/11