Last month in Afghanistan, an Apache helicopter crashed, taking the lives of Chief Warrant Officers Matthew Ruffner, of Harrisburg, and Jarett Yoder, of Brecknock Township near Reading.
Including them, the Pennsylvania National Guard has lost 41 members since 9/11.
As an act of solidarity and remembrance, soldiers stationed in Kuwait organized a 28-mile overnight march. It’s 28 miles because Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division organized it.
They carried 35-pound rucksacks through desert terrain in a relay fashion. The 500 marchers, from all branches of the military, displayed large photos with the names and ranks of the soldiers they were honoring. Some walked as far as seven miles. Many wanted to do the whole distance, but superior officers didn’t want to risk wearing out the troops on their “off” time.
Staff Sgt. Douglass Clegg from Hamilton, N.J., marched to honor Matthew Ruffner, who died in that helicopter crash.
“He was a battle buddy for many years in an aviation unit that we were in together,” Clegg said of Ruffner. “We lost touch over the years, then got together right before we came on deployment. We were actually supposed to reconnect when we got home.”
Other soldiers marched to remember those who served more than a decade ago.
“I’m honoring Sgt. Ross Durkey, who lost his life as an [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] soldier during the First Gulf War,” said Sgt 1st Class Ben Meinze with the 753rd Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, the military’s version of a bomb squad. “I wanted to march for him as a remembrance to the guys that have fallen in the past wars. So much attention is paid to the current guys now, I didn’t want to forget the ones that had come previous, before us.”
Meinze wore an airtight and remarkably heavy suit designed to withstand an exploding IED. He looked something like an astronaut or cartoon character.
Marching just ahead of him was Lt. Col. Todd Sowinski, from Exton — the commanding officer of Philadelphia’s First Squadron 104th Cavalry regiment.
He says he has a bond with every fallen soldier but picked one, Staff Sgt. Mark C. Baum, who was killed in Iraq in February 2009.
“I had the honor of serving as the Casualty Assistance Officer for Sgt. Baum’s parents,” said Sowinski. “It was a very tough duty, but probably the greatest honor in my career. Although I didn’t know Sgt. Baum, I felt like he was a brother, after that tough duty.”
The soldier’s creed reads in-part, “I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
This is our way of “never leaving” a fallen comrade.
Mechanized Infantry Sgt. Ryan Noyes marched to honor Specialist Eric Reinholt, of Villanova, who died in October.