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Flavor of Freedom: Pope AAF 2024 Memorial Ruck March

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Solomon Cook
  • 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group Public Affairs

In the early morning hours as the temperature begins to swelter, loose formations gather on Pope Army Airfield. The grouping of Airmen with rucksacks at their feet are punctuated by guidons displaying their squadron pride.

The purpose of the gathering was the 2024 Memorial Ruck March hosted May 23, 2024. The event is designed to honor and commemorate the Airmen from Team Pope who paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving their nation.

“Memorial Day -- what does it mean,” Col. Erik J. Haeuptle, 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group deputy commander, questioned the crowd as the event began. “What does it mean for us as a family and as a tribe? This event is dual-hatted. It is supposed to be a somber event, and we're also supposed to celebrate the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

While listening to the deputy commander, guidons could be seen beginning to stand straighter – the Airmen standing taller as the sense of pride in those who passed was visible on their faces.

“It's a dichotomy. There is sadness,” Haeuplte said with a pause. “We've lost them, they're gone, and they represent the best of us, but we shouldn't be sad. We should celebrate the lives they lived and the sacrifice that they made.”

While speaking his words from the heart, Haeuplte also quoted former presidents and U.S Army generals when explaining what dying in the line of duty means to him.

It is in a way an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country. In defense of us. Your imagination plays tricks, we see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the founding fathers, grave and gray-haired, but most of them were boys when they died. They gave up two lives. They gave up the one they were living, and they gave up the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers and mothers and sisters. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us, and all we can do is remember. President Ronald Reagan

“I remember our fallen brothers and sisters every day, and I'm sure you do too,” Haeuplte said. “These are opportunities for us to get together as a tribe, as a family, and honor them is a tribute to that legacy. You all are the one percent of the nation willing to put your life on the line – to sign your name on that document – that says that you would die for your country.”

As he spoke, aside from birds chirping in the sky above and the sound of an occasional vehicle passing by, the area was silent. Airmen past and present were focused – internalizing the message they were receiving.

“Many of you have heard me say this before, but freedom has a flavor the protected will never know,” Haeuptle elaborated. “This is the flavor that you understand – the flavor of freedom.

“Today, I'm going to mourn their loss,” he continued. “We're going to sweat together. We're going to honor their legacy together in this place of heroes and Medal of Honor winners. The list of heroes, both men and women, who have given the ultimate sacrifice on this post is so long.”

After Haeuplte departed the stage to applause, a member from the 18th Air Support Operations Group (ASOG) took the stage.

“Let's take a moment, and I invite you to pray with me,” Capt. Robert Nelson, 18th ASOG chaplain. “We come before you and acknowledge you as the commander over life and death and the one who has final control over our destiny. You give us strength to stand strong so that we can stand up for others and accomplish your good will, but this morning, we remember those who have fallen. We dedicate this time to remember that all gave some, but some gave all – we honor their service and sacrifice.”

Airmen bowed their heads and joined the chaplain. The words were followed with a moment of silence. As the group collectively looked back up to the stage, another member took to the platform.

“The reason that we're here is our fallen comrades,” said Master Sgt. Stephanie Wesby, 43rd Force Support Squadron senior enlisted leader. “I have names of 10 members that belong to different units [across the base.] I am going to say a name. I would like you all to repeat that name after me.” 

Senior Airman Ashton L. M. Goodman
Tech. Sgt. William H. Jefferson, JR.
Lt. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada
Senior Airman Bradley R. Smith
Airman 1st Class Raymond Losano
Lt. Col. Matthew P. Platt
Harris S. Luther III
Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley
Senior Airman Mark Forester
2nd Lt. Joseph R. Sarnoski

At the conclusion of speaking the names of the fallen, Team Pope participants were led in memorial pushups. Memorial push-ups are a military tradition popularized by the 22 Pushup Challenge. The 22 Pushup Challenge is designed to promote awareness of suicide prevention along with honoring military service members and veterans.

After the group returned to a standing position, they were instructed to begin the march. The words of the speakers and the significance of the event still fresh in their minds.

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that they lived. George Patton

“Don't be sad,” Haeuplte said. “Mourn their loss and value their legacy. Keep their memory alive, because the promise that our country made us is that they'll never leave us behind. The promise we made each other is that we'll never forget each other. Today, celebrate their lives with some good sweat. We'll hit this ruck and keep that in your mind that today's not a day of mourning, but a day of celebration for lives best lived.”