GLADE SPRING, Va. —
Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Coleman Ruiz has experienced a vast array of emotions during the past two weeks.
Ruiz is executive director of Carry the Load – a new nonprofit organization designed to renew attention on Memorial Day and the sacrifices made by military personnel and first responders. Its signature event, a 1,700-mile relay walk from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., to Dallas, Texas, where the organization was established, wound its way through the region Saturday.
One of the low moments occurred along Lee Highway in Southwest Virginia.
“I was feeling a little sorry for myself, walking in the middle of the night and not a lot of participation. We’re just about halfway,” Ruiz said. “I was thinking about my family and thought it would be really nice to be back in Dallas when this is over.
“That was a moment for me, because all of the surviving families who’ve lost loved ones – a husband, wife, father, son, brother or sister – they get up every day and have lonely moments. Walking through the middle of western Virginia at 2 in the morning might be a lonely moment but it’s short. they have a lifetime of them. That’s really the spirit of what the walk is all about.”
The walk began may 1 at the U.S. military academy and is expected to culminate in Texas on may 27.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, one of Ruiz’ most memorable moments occurred may 2 when the walk passed through New York City, stopping at the World Trade Center memorial and a New York firehouse.
“We went to Rescue 5, a fire station on Staten Island in New York,” Ruiz said. “I’m carrying a badge for [fire] Lt. Harvey Harrell, who was killed on 9/11. Rescue 5 sent his badge to us on the east coast SEAL teams and we’ve taken Harvey’s badge on 24 deployments since October 2001. I’ve carried Harvey’s badge on all the legs I’ve walked here. That day on Staten Island was a pretty powerful day.”
Harrell, 49, was one of 11 men from that company who perished in the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks. he had also responded to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and was a rescue diver when TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed off Long Island in 1996, according to the bravest Memorial website.
“these small tokens we carry are one very thin slice about people who have sacrificed for us. There’s tens of thousands of stories like that,” Ruiz said.
Carry the Load was established last year by Clint Bruce, another former SEAL and friend of Ruiz. the first event was a 20-hour walk in Dallas last Memorial Day.
“when the Dallas event concluded, people wanted to take the event out into the country. We chose that distance [1,700 miles] because it was doable in 27 days and we want to not just take back Memorial Day but take back the month of may,” Ruiz said. “We’re doing it in relay-type fashion that allows us to include people in the local communities.”
Thousands are participating in segments of the walk, a few at a time, according to Andy McCleery, a Bronze Star winner who formerly commanded units of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and came from Minnesota to participate.
“People who have lost loved ones carry that load every day, so what we can we do to remember those folks?” McCleery asked.
About a dozen others joined in the walk Saturday along with a float carrying flags, a miniature statue of liberty and the Ford Mustang of a soldier killed in Vietnam.
“We did this float in 2001 and we call it ‘Freedom.’ We can’t take it apart so we do parades and other events,” said Mike Gifford of Piketon, Ohio, who drove the truck hauling the float.
Ruiz, who plans to leave the director’s post later this year but continue as a volunteer, predicts the organization and event will grow.
“We’ve had an excellent response and I think next year will be much bigger,” Ruiz said. “most of the people walking today have come from all over but most of the time the participants are local folks.”