If you like challenges, or just want to support a good cause, join the 2018 annual Martha’s Vineyard March for Heroes, which starts off at 9 am Saturday, May 26, from the VFW on Towanticut Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Veterans, active military members, law enforcement officers, firemen, EMT, local SWAT teams, youth from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a group from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and dedicated civilians will walk the grueling 26.2 miles, many of them carrying 30 to 40 pounds of gear and body armor in solidarity with active and veteran service members. “The shared burden of how tough the march is brings everyone down to the same level,” explains Michael Blake, retired sergeant first class, who founded the Island’s march in 2013.
Michael grew up on the Vineyard, and after 16 years of service in the Army, he returned to the Island, worked for the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department, and ran Offshore Kinetics, a small firearms training company here on the Island. Michael was the precision use of force operator for the M.V. Tactical Response Team (TRT), and is currently a training and security contractor/range master and instructor for Altair Training Solutions in the Florida Everglades. But rest assured, he will be back on his home turf heading up the march as usual.
Michael originally initiated the March for Heroes to bring awareness to the staggering number of veteran suicides, some 22 daily according to widespread reports. With growing public recognition of the issue over the years, the march now has broadened its mission to raise money to aid veterans with additional challenges such as homelessness, PTSD, alcoholism, and drug addiction, among others. There needs to be a better system to address veterans’ needs, and the first step is to help bring awareness to them, but Michael said he believes you can’t help someone you don’t know. He and the event organizers say they want the march to be “an opportunity for people to talk to the person on their left and right, to provide a chance they may not ordinarily get to hear vets’ stories.”
The physical nature of the march also helps people bond. James Craig was a naval aviator from 1988 to 1993 during Desert Storm, and deployed again, ending his tour with a brief stint in Naval Intelligence. “I completed the first march back in 2014, and boy … I should have prepared better! I marched with my full SWAT body armor, and I simply didn’t train hard enough. I also failed to comprehend how rough such a march is on the feet, and made a poor choice of footwear. I made it, but was laid up for several days afterward! The march is great fun for the first half, but becomes a grueling slog toward the end,” James said. “At first, the conversation is light … and it’s fantastic to be back in a group of active-duty military, vets, law enforcement officers, and passionate civilians. You feel that sense of camaraderie again that we all felt when in the service … [relying] on each other to accomplish the mission, or sometimes just to stay alive. Even if I just met these folks, it feels as if we are old friends.
“The mood is decidedly different near the end, however. At that point each marcher is searching for his or her own motivator to keep slugging it out. My legs were spent, my feet covered in blisters, my back screaming from the weight of the body armor. But I was not ever going to quit. I was not going to let this team down, and no matter how much I thought I was suffering, the people I was there to help were suffering more. So, I huffed and puffed and dragged myself along, and the team waited for me when necessary … ‘never leave a man behind,’” he said.
James’s son, Riley Craig, joined him on the last leg of the 2014 march when he was only 13 years old, but now at age 17, has done the entire length ever since. Riley too talks about the sense of camaraderie both with people he knows and those who are new friends, yet is honest about the rough part. “Wearing probably 35 or 40 pounds of equipment for 26 miles; that’s not fun no matter who you are … but then you remember why you’re doing it and you forget your pain — or you pretend to … but it’s very worth it; very, very worth it!” Riley said.
Robert Riemer, master chief petty officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Menemsha, shared his ruminations while he walks: “It is a great time to reflect on the sacrifices that are made in service to our great nation. Many service members give up a lot, they are injured … or endure long separations from family. It takes a toll, and is worth our respect … I worked as a paramedic in New York [during 9/11] … I have seen firsthand and up close the damage that terrorists can do to our country … The whole [Memorial Day] weekend [is] an opportunity to reflect on all that has been sacrificed to guarantee the American way of life.”
Laura Hilliard, one of the volunteer managers and the event’s photographer, spoke about her motivation. “As a nurse, this event is very meaningful to me, as it supports the veteran community on the Island, and helps address issues that arise for veterans as they make what can be a difficult transition back to civilian life, and they bring awareness to common difficulties in this often misunderstood population. This event helps bring civilians and veterans together, helping to bridge some of that divide,” Hilliard said.
Indeed, the community has already stepped up, she says, “Water stops are run by the Junior High/Youth Football program, MV Youth Girls’ Lacrosse U13-U15, and MVRHS boys lacrosse team. Sponsors are Cabana Dan’s, TPG Black, TACPRO gear, 508five50, and the Black Dog.” Laura reminds us, “Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of the VFW staff, who provide breakfast and dinner for marchers, and a great deal of volunteer time before the event. Edgartown Fire and EMS staff provide lunch and a place to rest and regroup at their station as well.”
For Michael Blake, at its heart, the March for Heroes is to bring attention to veterans’ issues throughout the Martha’s Vineyard community. Whether you join the march at any point or cheer the group on along the route, participation in any form is what’s key. Asked what he wants readers to know, Riley enthusiastically stresses, “If you want to help, please, anything you can do, even if you only donate $2 or $3, it’s all going to a very good cause. With the help of the community, I think we can have a better year than we ever have. I have a lot of faith.”
This year funds raised will be distributed evenly to support the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Matthew A. Pucino Foundation, which honors the memory of fallen Green Beret Matthew A. Pucino by providing for the physical and emotional needs of combat-wounded soldiers and their families. The foundation also helps support the Green Beret Foundation, which provides unconventional resources to facilitate the special needs of the wounded, ill, and injured members of the Special Forces community.
PayPal donations link: bit.ly/MVMarchDonate
Those interested in a moving and informative documentary on YouTube about the march can go to bit.ly/MarchDoc.