BVA Members Demonstrate Vibrancy of Human Spirit
By Timothy Hornik
The 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March challenges one’s humility, endurance, and perseverance. The ordeal originates on high desert trails that consist of sand, gravel, and paved roads within the Organ Mountains in Southwestern New Mexico. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peak National Monument, located 10 miles east of the city of Las Cruces, was created in May 2014. The elevation of Las Cruces, 3,908 feet above sea-level, adds an extra bonus challenge for participants who hail from lower altitudes.
The Bataan Memorial Death March commemorates the forced march of Filipino and American civilian and service members captured on April 9, 1942. Approximately 10,000 individuals died along the roughly 62-mile route to the Japanese camps. The original participants consisted of the survivors from the battle for the Philippines, which began in December 1941. Reflecting upon the casualties from the original death march and what the survivors endured leaves me speechless. The stroll we do today keeps these brave souls alive. Listening to those around you and assisting your fellow marchers provides a glimpse into this tragic event.
It may be the last of 26.2 miles but both Lonnie Bedwell and Nancy Standage have still enough left in them to offer a smile or two. Photo courtesy of Victor Henderson, Blind Endeavors.
Even more inspiring is the chance to meet and walk with the actual veterans of the Bataan Death March. Colonel Ben Skardon was 24 years old when captured by the Japanese. This year marked the tenth time the 99-year-old walked 8.5 miles of the route surrounded by family and friends.
Skardon was not alone, as surviving dependents of other Bataan veterans took the annual trip this year and in the past. One of these heroes’ daughters approached our group around Mile 12 and thanked us for our service. We promptly thanked her for her service in ensuring that the stories of her father and uncle continue to be told. She told us how her father carried his brother before he died. This left us all absolutely speechless with tears in our eyes.
Fielding the first five-person blinded veteran team were Operation Peer Support’s Nate Gorham, Steve Baskis, Lonnie Bedwell, Dan Standage, and Tim Hornik. We all trekked the entire route. The team received support from Blind Endeavors’ Victor Henderson and Kevin Baskis, the Southwestern Blind Rehabilitation Center’s Nancy Standage (Tucson), and Terry Kebbel and his friends and family.
Victor, Kevin, and Nancy served as sighted guides throughout the route. Terry and Maryellen Kebbel hosted our group with the assistance from their friends Jim and Nina Schaeffer, Al and Marie Hughey, and Harry and Eileen Monahan. We also had the distinct pleasure to meet fellow blinded veteran and hero Marshall Lynch, who charged across an island with 75 Marines during World War II. Only 18 survived that particular operation.
If you are wondering how five blinded veterans navigate a 26.2-mile trek through the desert, let us just say that it required some trial and error. First, we used a combination of trekking poles, white canes, iTunes music, and other vocal commands. Our formation possessed a center point consisting of Kevin and Steve Baskis walking in single file connected with a cane. Steve carried a Bluetooth speaker which pumped out a series of playlists from iTunes music on his iPhone 7 throughout the entire time. The music allowed everyone else to orient themselves off the audio cues.
Lonnie, with his tremendous hearing, followed behind Steve with a trekking pole and white cane. I floated behind Lonnie or Victor, relying on either two trekking poles or a trekking pole with a white cane. Nate and Dan relied on their residual sight and canes with guided assistance as needed. As a VA BRC instructor, Nancy ensured that we stayed on point and did not go wandering off through the desert. Amazingly, many of our fellow participants did not fully realize we were blind, especially when Lonnie started dancing mid-trail!
The two-trekking pole method and the trekking pole-white cane method both permit a blind individual to safely navigate rugged terrain. The two-trekking pole method requires each pole to be extended so that your hands and arms rest comfortably about chest level. Each time you swing your arm, you must place the tip of the pole in front of and outside your foot by about a measured foot. This aids in your balance and awareness of the trail.
The trekking pole with a white cane performs a bit differently. The pole reinforces balance with limited trail feedback as the white cane is used normally. A pencil, ball, or hook tip will work on the tip of the white cane. A loose grip is essential.
The various types of sand, gravel, and roads presented different challenges. Two- to three-foot sand berms acted like bumpers but the loose sand and gravel made walking straight very difficult. The paved road was easy to navigate with the white cane but very difficult with the two trekking poles. Finally, the course contained many congestion points, forcing us to rely on walking in tandem. So, just as we developed a groove, environmental factors prevented complacency. If anything, the variations ensured that our guides reacted swiftly to changing situations.
The Bataan Memorial Death March was a huge highlight in the lives of each of the participants. Here are some of the comments:
Nate—“What stands out to me is everyone completing the March, coupled with the amazing support of Terry, Maryellen, Jim, Al, and all the locals. We had a great attitude among the marchers and everyone was determined to finish.”
Dan—“The greatest thing about the March to me was the chance to be surrounded by my fellow veterans. This provided the opportunity for each of us to share where we are in our lives, share questions, and offer advice.”
Steve—“The March was amazing and a great challenge for blind and visually impaired veterans. I especially enjoyed crossing the finish line given that the trek destroyed the bottom of one of my feet!"
Lonnie—“I should have found the time to train better, which drives home the point that no matter how busy I am, I have to find time to stay in shape. One of the toughest aspects of being blind is making time and developing strategies to engage in physical activities. We have great opportunities such as VA’s Move Program and networks like www.UnitedInStride.com, which pairs blind individuals with sighted guides. Blindness should not cause your life to stop but provide you with the chance to solve problem situations.”
Left to right, Nate Gorham, Tim Hornik, Steve Baskis, and Kevin Baskis await Bataan Memorial Death March Opening Ceremony. Photo courtesy of Victor Henderson, Blind Endeavors.
For me, this grand March fulfilled my goal of finally accomplishing a marathon-length trek. This goal originated with my participation in the United States Association of Blind Athletes’ national championships at the California International Marathon. I can’t think of a better way for the goal to be fulfilled than at an event commemorating one of the most significant war events in modern history.