For the next week and a half, U.S. Air Force Special Tactics operators will strap 50-pound packs on their backs and continue their march from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland to to Hurlburt Field in northwestern Florida.
All Special Tactics airmen begin their training at Lackland and end two years of rigorous instruction at Hurlburt Field. The memorial march represents the same path.
At 2 a.m. Friday, 10 teams of two airmen started the 830-mile march. All 20 operators marched at least the first 5 miles and will march the last 5 miles together; in between, the teams will alternate every 12 miles or so. The whole journey will take 11 days to complete, and each airman will log about 100 miles by the end.
This year, the airmen march in memory of Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin, who was killed in Afghanistan last November when an IED exploded. The Special Tactics combat controller was 25 years old.
Staff Sgt. Sean O’Hearn, also a Special Tactics combat controller, became friends with Elchin six years ago after a family member introduced the two. Elchin, who brought a smile to everyone’s face, was the person you always wanted on your team, O’Hearn said. The Pennsylvania native loved the Pittsburgh Steelers and knew everything about the team, O’Hearn added.
“He knew every single thing about football, but he couldn’t really catch a football, wasn’t really the most athletic guy,” O’Hearn said. “He was just always improving and getting better.”
Though he was not an NFL top draft pick, Elchin worked to gain 30 pounds of muscle and became one of the strongest men on the Special Tactics team — which made it difficult for his teammates to overpower him, O’Hearn said.
“A little tradition we had was rolling up guys on their birthday,” O’Hearn said. “He was so strong, it took a whole team of guys to take him down. Me being his supervisor, I put him on a workout waiver and told him he was getting stronger than everyone on the team, so he had to cool off a little bit.”
This is the fifth memorial march since the first in 2009, which honored Staff Sgt. Tim Davis. Each march has been done to remember all Special Tactics operators killed in action since 9/11. The troops carry a baton with them inscribed with the names of 20 of their fallen brothers.
Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Guilmain, command chief for the 24th Special Operations Wing, said though he did not know Elchin personally, the stories others shared of Elchin’s dedication and positivity were enough.
“I think it says a lot of a man when you never met face to face, but you knew the caliber of the human being he was,” Guilmain said.
Each airman carries a 50-pound pack during the march, a feat that is not only difficult but also a way to sacrifice something in Elchin’s memory, Guilmain said.
“I think a little bit of the physical challenge, and shedding a little bit of skin off the bottom of your feet, and suffering just a little bit on Dylan’s behalf, maybe it makes us feel a little bit better,” Guilmain said. “But we hope … the tangible example of the pride that we feel and the fact that we want to honor Dylan means a lot to the families and hopefully the American public as well.”
Guilmain, who has served in the Air Force for 28 total years, joined O’Hearn and 18 other Special Tactics operators who volunteered for the ruck march. There are only about 1,000 Special Tactics operators, and members of the community are fiercely loyal to one another.
“We’re doing this one in particular in honor of Dylan, but the list of people killed in special action is long,” Guilmain said. “I have known and had a personal relationship with many of them. This has a lot of personal meaning for me, but I think it means a lot for our community too. The Special Tactics community rally around our fallen as heroes, and their families — we have an interest in keeping tight with our formation forever.”
Brig. Gen. Claude Tudor, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, said Special Tactics is composed of “silent professionals,” as the work that they do is mostly unsung.
“This is a way for us to break out of a silent professional mode and tell stories to people like you and the people along this 830 miles, so they understand who we are and what we do,” he said.
To O’Hearn, marching not only allows him to share Elchin’s story, it gives him the chance to learn about others’ stories and tell people why Special Tactics operators love doing their job.
“Walking 830 miles in 11 days, I’m going to get the opportunity to share these stories and take it back to my squadron and my families back home and not only talk about the men they were, [but also] their families,” he said. “The Gold Star families … will never be forgotten as well.”
The 20 airmen are scheduled to arrive at Hurlburt Field on March 4, the 17th anniversary of Master Sgt. John Chapman’s death. Chapman, a Special Tactics combat controller, is the most recent Air Force member to receive the Medal of Honor.
Follow the marchers in real time here.