FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - It is 2:30 a.m. A brilliant aurora shimmers white and green in the arctic sky while the citizens of Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright sleep in the cool late August air; except, that is, for the soldiers of Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry “Bobcats.”
The Apaches have just stepped off on a 20-mile foot march that will see them travel across Fort Wainwright, ascend 1,000 feet up Birch Hill, and turn around to march back to their start point, loaded with 35 pounds of gear, a rifle, and enough water to keep them hydrated for two days of operations. It is the culmination of months of physical conditioning, mental toughening and discipline-oriented training.
“Pretty much the whole company is here,” boasts Sgt. 1st Class Pedro Chavez, the first sergeant for the Apaches. “With the exception of a few [injured soldiers] we’ve got 115 flat-bellied infantrymen marching on this beautiful morning.”
Spc. Marvin Macwithey of Kaufman, Texas is one of those infantrymen. It’s mile three and he’s in high spirits.
“This is good training,” he says through the dark with what I imagine is a grin as I march next to him. “We’re doing this to push ourselves and to be ready for any type of mission.”
A lot of the earlier enthusiasm has been replaced with gritted determination four miles further down the trail—the Apaches have started their five mile-long, 1000-foot climb up Birch Hill, the most prominent terrain feature on Fort Wainwright. They’ve been on the road for two and a half hours and in the last 20 minutes have climbed 220 feet.
The soldiers feel their gear digging into their shoulders and the smalls of their backs as they crane their necks forward, looking for a point up ahead where the road evens out and the sun is starting to sneak its first morning rays through.
“This incline is the most important part of this march,” says Sgt. Sergio Miranda of Denver, in between exhortations for his guys to attack the hill. “The march itself is great because it’s good for the guys to know that, hey, ‘I could walk 20 miles if I had to.’ But it’s also important because we need to identify the quitters now so we can develop them later.”
There are no quitters in sight at mile 11, the turn-around point. From the top of Birch Hill, the soldiers can see Wainwright, North Pole and, far off in the horizon, the ethereal peaks of the Alaska Range, intermingled with morning mist and the smoke from seasonal wildfires. The scent of burning spruce hangs thick in the air even at this point nearly a quarter of a mile in the sky.
One by one, they all move past Capt. Mike Nolan, the commander of Apache Company, to take a short break at the top of the hill, change their socks and hydrate.
“You guys don’t even look tired,” Nolan jokes with one group of soldiers as they pass him, receiving an enthusiastic “Hooah!” in response.
Nolan waits for every single one of his men to make it to the top before dropping his own ruck sack and taking in some water.
“We’re doing this partly for training; infantrymen should be able to march long distances with their gear” he says. “But another part of it really is all about these guys being able to say they marched 20 miles with a ruck on. That’s pretty cool.”
Five hours later, the Apaches have completed their march, changed into civilian clothes, and are hard at work enjoying some camaraderie with each other and their families on Melaven Field during a company barbeque. A couple of the soldiers are limping on blisters, but everyone is smiling and seems to be having a good time. There’s also a palpable sense of accomplishment among them.
“Before, I wasn’t sure we’d all be able to make it,” admits Spc. Joseph Zacherl of Fryburg, Penn. “Now that it’s all said and done, it’s actually pretty impressive that we did.”
His buddy, Spc. Israel Velez from Millville, N.J., agrees.
“Seeing those mountains from up on Birch Hill was something else,” Velez says with a slight smile. “I’m definitely pretty proud right now.”
Nearly every one of the 115 soldiers who started the march completed it with the company.
That’s probably the most important accomplishment of the entire event, according to Chavez.
“We started and finished with almost the exact same number of people” he says. “And most of our fall-outs were guys with partial profiles. They still saddled up and did part of it with the company. That’s just how we Apaches roll.”
The Apaches won’t be resting on their laurels for long, though. Training to a newer and higher standard is the next company objective, according to Capt. Nolan.
“Once we’ve done this, we’ll start back down at lower distances but with heavier weights and train on up all over again,” he says, surveying his company.