Waking up at dawn to make it to a PT (physical training) test on time, Mercer University ROTC cadets run and sweat, doing as many situps and pushups as their bodies permit in two minutes.
There’s a saying in the Army called “embrace the suck,” said Kara Styers, a third-year ROTC cadet who is double majoring in intercultural studies and Spanish.
“I try not to think about the not good stuff. It’s always, more than likely, going to suck, but you have to accept it, learn to have a positive attitude.”
In less than a month, 10 Mercer ROTC cadets, accompanied by cadets from Georgia Military College will fly to New Mexico for the 26th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March. For months, they have been devoting weekends to running anywhere from 12 to 20 miles.
The Bataan (pronounced buh-tan) Memorial Death March is a 26.2-mile marathon through the sand, dirt and dust of the White Sands Missile Range.
Besides the unstable terrain of the desert, the main difference between this foot race and any other is the elevation. White Sands sits about 3,890 to 4,116 feet above sea level. Macon’s elevation is about 341 feet, according to the U.S. Climate Data website.
For about seven or eight miles, the race will be run uphill, Styers said, so the elevation will increase, causing the lungs more stress.
The cadets will be competing in the ROTC Military Light and Heavy categories, both consisting of their ACUs, or Army Combat Uniforms.
Styers said that the stress is on taking care of one’s feet. Running in boots causes blisters, so they will most likely bring a change of socks and use powders to reduce irritation.
But boots aren’t the only atypical running gear that these cadets will don. The Military Heavy team members will also be wearing 35-pound backpacks. In military terms, the packs are called rucks.
Their rucks will be filled with nonperishable food items to donate to the Roadrunner Food Bank at the end of the March.
The Bataan Memorial Death March began in 1989 to memorialize World War II Allied forces who surrendered at Bataan, an island in the Philippines. These captured armies were made to march with little food under harsh conditions, and the few who survived were forced into prisoner of war camps.
The 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard were among the captured marchers. Veterans from the POW camp wait at the finish line to shake the hands of marchers as they cross.
Styers expects the finish line to be an emotional experience. About one in four people drop out of the race, Styers said. “It will probably be the hardest physical challenge that any cadet has done in (his or her) life.”
The Middle Georgia cadets will compete in teams of five, and all members of a team must complete the race or else be disqualified.
Like the Bataan marchers who had to band together to survive, “so, too must we learn to work together to be successful in not just the march but our careers as we move forward to become officers in the U.S. Army,” wrote Timothy Walker in an essay on what participating in the Bataan would mean to him.
The marathon is comprised of one of the ROTC’s specialty teams. Other specialty teams include a Ranger Challenge and a Wounded Warrior Race, but arguably, none are as strenuous.
“We are a very active battalion, for sure,” Styers said. Usually, each cadet participates on at least one specialty team in his or her four years at Mercer.
The ROTC program allows regular people to become indoctrinated in the Army, said Styers.
All ROTC cadets receive a minor in military science upon graduation, and many are STEM majors or majoring in political science/international affairs.
“Once you invest in ROTC, you’re essentially investing in your future,” said Ty Downer, a third-year ROTC student.
But Styers said that ROTC is “more than a dog and pony show, putting on a uniform and walking around.” It is student led. ROTC cadets also lead in other avenues of campus-life: from supplemental instructors and Crossfit coaches to honor council justices and Greek life members.
ROTC practically guarantees physical fitness. “Physically, you are always in game mode,” Styers said. Yet, the program also aims to stretch cadets’ brain power with analytical activities.
She said that ROTC helps teach responsibility and leadership because, once ROTC cadets graduate, most will be platoon leaders in charge of 30 to 60 people. Styers said that they will have to make hard decisions in combat—ones that affects the real peoples’ lives.
Instead of being nervous about the thought of combat, Styers says that she is excited. “When you’ve been training for four years to be able to exhibit skills and make difference, it’s what you’ve been waiting for.”
The Mercer students competing in the Bataan Memorial Death March will be Joel Aguilar, Gabriel Jones, David Oh, Timothy Walker, Andrew Clanton, Remington Dixon, Sutton Milukas, Kara Styers, Jackie Harmon and John Savage.