PORTLAND, Maine - On a crisp fall Sunday, more than two dozen Maine National Guardsmen met before sunrise at the Portland Armory on Stephens Avenue. They pinned on their race numbers, “86,” picked up their rucksacks, and headed to the starting point for the Maine Marathon.
Fighting off blisters, sore muscles and exhaustion, the service members took on the 26-mile journey of the Portland marathon while toting more than 30 pounds in their rucksacks. With photographs, buttons, and memories of their fallen brothers and sisters, they walked, keeping the memories of these heroes alive.
Eight years ago, Maj. Grant Delaware, executive officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 286th Combat Sustainment Battalion in Bangor, contacted the race director for the Maine Marathon about a tribute march that would coincide with the marathon. Since then, the event has become a staple with soldiers participating every year, regardless of deployments, work and training schedules, and even, a government shutdown.
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy MacArthur, communications team chief for the 11th Weapons of Mass Destruction, Civil Support Team in Waterville, has participated in every march since 2006. In the last few years he has taken on the role of coordinator, planner, marcher, and pace keeper. Looking back at previous marches, he finds one point in the march always remains the most challenging.
“The last two miles are the hardest of the entire 26,” he said. “One, it is very slow, so at that point it hurts. But we stay that slow pace because for those last miles, we have everyone. We have grandparents, we have children, and everyone comes together then. Every year, it is very emotional, when everyone is together, and when we cross the finish line, it hits me. Every time.”
Many of the service members who come out do so year after year. Connections have formed with the family members who join those last two miles. As the family members are welcomed into the formation, they often fall in beside soldiers they have come to know. They share hugs, stories, and memories as they walk. A soldier at the front and back of the formation help hold a steady pace so that no one is left behind.
When they started the tribute march, the number of fallen was seven. This year, 86 service members, all with connections to Maine, were honored.
MacArthur, who has been active in the military for 13 years, said this is something he looks forward to every year.
“I do it every year. I enjoy the challenge, the physical aspect of it,” he said. “But mostly, I do it to let those family members know they are still a part of the organization. We can’t just let them fall by wayside because their service member isn’t here anymore. We need to continue to bring them in and include them because the Maine National Guard, we are all about family. You form those bonds. I do it every year for the families, to let them know we haven’t forgotten.”
Peggy Dostie, of Somerville is the mother of fallen soldier Spc. Tommie Dostie. Tommie was one of two Maine Guardsmen killed in killed in an explosion at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 21, 2004. Staff Sgt. Lynn Robert Poulin was the other soldier. She and her husband have only missed one of the marches since they began. Dostie said that events like the tribute march and the Run for the Fallen that bring together current service members and families of the fallen, are a chance for her to reconnect with that part of her son’s life.
“We appreciate everything that these soldiers are doing. Whether its serving overseas, or serving here. This march not only honors our son, but also the sons and daughters of so many other families, and it’s a good feeling knowing that they are still being remembered.”
For the service members, the 26 mile ruck is not an easy event. Foot powder, band aids, and a fresh dry pair of socks quickly become necessities. But while their torn and sore feet will heal, the painful memories of their fallen friends still linger.
MacArthur said “the hardest part as a participant is probably a tie between picking up that rucksack and putting it back on at the rest halt each time, with those sore feet and just getting back out there and continuing to walk, and then the recovery process after. People’s backs, shoulders and feet get torn up, and it takes some time to recover. The blisters and pain that you feel for the week or two after the event, though, that pales in comparison to what these family members deal with on a daily basis. For two weeks of pain, I can endure and I can put that rucksack back on, and I can keep on walking, for them. These guys would rather be here doing this, then where they are right now.”
This year, Dostie’s granddaughter walked the entire last two miles. She is six, and has never met the uncle she marches for, but she has been doing it every year. Her family is proud to share the memories of “Uncle Tom” with these nieces and nephews he won’t ever meet.
“It means everything to us that Tom will never be forgotten,” said Dostie. “There are people out there all the time who are remembering us. Books, news shows, it all means so much. These soldiers will never be forgotten. People are doing so much to keep those memories going. And you can’t really put it into words how much it means to us, but it means everything. I am sure other families feel the same way- that their sacrifice was not for nothing.”