Monday, April 6, 2015

The Bataan Memorial Death March: It’s Not in the Dying, But in the Living. He is Risen!

A guest post by my mom, Dallas Paetzold, about her recent completion of the Bataan Memorial Death March marathon:

The American flag softly flutters in the pre-dawn darkness. The air is crisp. An arid desert expanse competes with jagged mountains at the horizon daring me to endure their rugged extremes. About 6000 people, many dressed in full military fatigues including combat boots and 35 pound packs, stand at silent attention. Following the singing of the National Anthem, a speaker informs us that the number standing here today is roughly the same as the number of soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, during World War II. It is those soldiers we are here to remember and to honor this morning at the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

From the platform, the speaker explains that before the race begins, a roll call will take place to honor the three Bataan Death March survivors in attendance today as well as those survivors who have died within the previous year. As the roll call begins, the soldiers standing all around me snap to attention. 

Their subtle, yet immediate movement startles me as the first survivor’s name is called. Although the tone of his voice betrays his nine decades of life, the first survivor answers loud and clear into the microphone with a brave, “Here.” The second survivor’s name is called and I hear the same response, “Here.” A third time, a survivor’s name is called and the reply is a resolute, “Here.” Then the fourth name is called and only silence answers back. Several more survivors’ names are read to honor their passing in the last year and the silent response is deafening. The uniformed soldiers all around me continue to stand statue-like at military attention until the last name is called. I am moved to tears, not because several nonagenarian men have died in the past year, but because in their living, they and the uniformed soldiers around me are willing to die for my freedom.

The roll call completed, sunlight softly filters over the mountains finally declaring the day’s presence and a low rumbling interrupts the stillness. A military medical helicopter comes into sight. 

It flies low, and a uniformed medic dangles his legs down from the chopper’s open door as he surveys the crowd. I am caught up in the ebb of the crowd as we move along to the start line. As if an exclamation mark is needed to punctuate the events of the morning, a cannon fires to begin the race. However, I am further back among the marchers, and it is slow going to get to the actual start line. I wonder why. I pass the time by reading memorial messages written under black and white portraits of uniformed men pinned to the backs and packs of many of the marchers, as a means to remember loved ones lost in battle for America’s freedom. Finally approaching the start line, I see the answer for the reason behind the slow start. Unexpectedly, I find myself face to face with the three Bataan survivors and take the opportunity, as the other marchers have, to shake their hands and offer my thanks for their service to our country. Once again, I begin to cry. And, I begin to run

I have raced in too many 5Ks to count, and in various cycling events, triathlons, and half-marathons, some of which have had participants numbering in the tens of thousands. In those races, bands played, people cheered all along the route, some of my family members ran beside me and some met me at designated points to encourage my progress. In a few races, themed water stops with outrageously costumed characters applauded and rooted for us runners. However, the Bataan Memorial Death March resembles no other. We are running through the White Sands Missile Range, and the dangers of straying from the course prohibit the attendance of spectators along the route. Like the Bataan Survivors’ motto, “No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam,” I find myself running the Bataan Memorial Death March marathon alone and seemingly anonymous. No one is on the sidelines cheering for anyone. The water stops are staffed with volunteer military personnel whose hands are full handing out water and fruit. While they are appropriately helpful and encouraging, I only hear a random, “Good job,” or “Keep it up,” as I pass through the aid stations. The crazy thing is that I am not missing the hoopla. True to the spirit of the Bataan motto, we, the marchers, have become our own encouragement for one another.

The majestic beauty and serene quiet of the course joined with the contemplative thoughts of the morning’s memorial ceremony carry me to mile 14 with little complaint. However, my knee is beginning its old shenanigans of acting up, and I am finding it a bit difficult to run the down hills. Yes, the down hills. By mile 17, I am walking a few of the steeper down hills, but still running the up hills. 

The crowd has thinned out, and I find myself trading leads with two men in their late twenties who are having the opposite problem. While they are sailing down the hills, they are working hard at walking up the hills. One of them is missing an arm above his elbow, and the stump shows just below his short sleeve. The other is wearing a prosthetic blade below his knee.  As several others have throughout the day, they visit with me along the run, and we encourage one another. They share with me that they lost their limbs while serving our country in Iraq. Once again, I am overcome with gratefulness for the willingness of men and women to give their lives and limbs for my freedom. I resolve to be thankful for my aching knee, because at least I have a knee!

We are at mile 19, and the course has doubled back on itself so that we are running back toward the finish line as slower marchers are running mile 9 and still heading toward the turn around point. It is one of a few sections that is actually a closed, paved street rather than the sandy, dirt roads we have been enduring. I notice that the two men I have been running with head toward the middle stripe in the street. Then I realize that many of the slower marchers coming toward us are amputees, also. They too are coming toward the centerline. In a unique camaraderie, they are spotting each other and high-fiving one another at the middle of the road.

I have dreaded mile 21 from the first I heard of this marathon, and here it is: deep, loose sand on a slow incline covering about a mile. Walking is no easier than running. However, if I take small, flat-footed marching steps I find that it is bearable. I laugh as I consider that I have now truly become a “marcher” in this race, and I am thankful not to be lugging a 35-pound pack. As I slowly put mile 21 behind me (taking an agonizing and embarrassingly slow 17 minutes through the deep sand), I desperately try to focus my fatigued mind on my estimated time of arrival at the finish line. My goal has been simply to finish, but I feel I might benefit from chasing a dangling carrot of a time goal if I can only formulate one for the last few miles. My phone chimes a text. My slow pace allows me to read it. It is my 13 year old son, a runner in his own right and a recent finisher of his first half-marathon. “What mile?” he asks. “21,” I respond. “Bring it home!” he texts back, and I can imagine in his voice the enthusiasm, encouragement, and belief he has in me. My phone chimes again. This time it is my daughter who is living in England. “Where are you?!” she texts. “22,” I answer. “4 miles is nothing compared to 22,” she encourages. She is right. I mentally compartmentalize the run, and I begin a 4-mile race with a time goal that I imagine is just out of my reach. After all, I’ve been inspired by so many today who are living their lives by accomplishing what seems to be just beyond their capabilities.

I think of the finish line and look forward to seeing my kids and my husband who has been volunteering in the medical tent. 

At mile 24, a child who is a volunteer at the last water stop hands me a little American flag on a gold-colored stick. Halfway through mile 25, I can hear the crowd at the finish line. It motivates me, and I glance at my watch. I might possibly make my time goal that I set back at mile 22. I wave my flag in the air and cross the finish line with 32 seconds to spare! And then I see them.

For the final time today, I begin to cry. The three living survivors of the Bataan Death March of 1942 are sitting under a tent within the roped off section of the finish area. I am guided toward them for one more opportunity to offer my thanks. Overcome with emotion, I look into the wrinkled faces of these men who endured unspeakable atrocities for the United States of America and for my family’s freedom. I offer them my thanks. It is so little. I hope they feel honored today. I am privileged to have met them.

I consider Jesus. I have run with and been inspired by many today who are willing to sacrifice their lives and limbs for me and for our country. I have heard the silent responses, and looked into the photographed faces of those who have already given their lives. At the risk of sounding arrogantly blasphemous, I think, “So, really, what’s so great about Jesus dying for me? Many men and women have given their lives for my freedom in this country.” The answer comes quickly to my mind: It is not so much in the dying as it is in the living. The living is the demonstration of power over death. The living is the proof of Jesus’ unity with God. It’s the living that gives life! If after Jesus’ crucifixion, a roll call were given on the third day, the response would not be silence but perhaps, “Here. I Am.” What sets Jesus apart from brave men and women willing to die for me is that on the third day He rose again. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Therefore, let us run well the race set before us. Let us encourage one another all the more as we see the day drawing near. For it is not in the dying, but in the living…

Hope y'all enjoyed this moving and inspirational guest post by my mom! I'm heading back state side on Friday and have been working on papers the last few weeks, so it was fun to get another writer in here. Hope all y'all had a great Easter weekend!

1 comment :

  1. Crying! This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Christy hilbert