COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Two Airmen from Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, will begin a 100-mile marching journey with an American flag beginning the morning of Sept. 10 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and will travel through the day and night arriving at the Sept. 11 Memorial in New York City the morning of Sept. 11.
Maj. Jonathan Leetch, 41st Flying Training Squadron T-6 instructor pilot, and Capt. Matthew Carpenter, 14th Student Squadron, 14th Flying Training Wing graduation officer, are managing the setup of this year’s march which is in its seventh iteration and will have about 25 people participating along the way.
For Leetch this is his fifth year being involved and this will be the second year for Carpenter. The goal of the group is to bring awareness to remembering the victims of 9/11, while also fundraising for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in NYC. Last year, the group raised $10,500 and hopes to raise $10,000 again this year, with all proceeds helping to preserve the memorial and museum.
“We’ve forgotten what it feels like to all come under attack and to all pull together” Leetch said.
Leetch said he can recall where he was and what he was doing during the terror attacks, but one thing that stands out especially is how Americans pulled together and stood united following those times.
“You saw people come from all walks of life come from all different locations to help out and you got a lot of people that are in the military today because of that day,” Leetch continued.
During the 100-mile trip Carpenter and Leetch will be providing live updates via Facebook and Instagram. Those who wish to follow along can check out their Facebook page, 9/11 Memorial 100 Mile March, where their fundraising page is also located, 7th Sept 11 Memorial 100 Mile March. The group will also be active on Instagram and people can follow the account 100for911.
During the march, participants are encouraged to complete as many miles as they can. A support van follows the group so marchers can take breaks as needed. Last year, Carpenter said he completed somewhere between 50-60 miles and hopes to push himself between the range of 60-70 miles this year.
“Whenever you want to walk, you’re walking,” said Leetch, a Pleasanton, California, native. “So some guys will walk the majority of the 100 miles, some guys will only walk in little bits and kind of rest while we’re going.”
The flag never stops moving during the 100-mile journey. Historically, a flag which was flown over combat in Afghanistan was the one used during the march from JB MDL to NYC. It is then presented to memorial and museum representatives and then flown over the memorial. The funds raised during that time are also presented to the representatives.
Carpenter, a native of Lockport, Louisiana, said it felt great to march last year and give back. He said he looks forward to doing it once again and the feeling of being at ground zero on 9/11 is surreal.
“Being a ‘90s kid, that was one of the primary reasons I got into the military,” said Carpenter, who commissioned into the Air Force from Louisiana State University in 2014. “Being able to give back a little bit while doing something awesome with your buddies that you don’t get to see all the time is just an awesome experience.”
According to both Airmen, the march can be tiring; however, it’s all worth it when they reach their destination.
“Hands down my favorite part is the last five miles,” Leetch said. “We go from Central Park, down the island, through Times Square, and you start seeing the ‘Freedom Tower’ poke out from behind the buildings. It really doesn’t matter how tired and how hungry you are. That feeling of hey ‘we‘re almost there,’ … you kind of get a second wind and you can march literally another 100 miles if you needed to.”
Carpenter shared the same sentiment. He said after the group arrives and hands over the flag and funds, they then take some time to eat and collect themselves before returning to the memorial for the ceremonies.
“Just being there in the shadow of the new (One) World Trade Center and all the bag pipes and everything playing, you will shed a tear,” Carpenter said.
Leetch and Carpenter will represent members of Team BLAZE this year, but other recent Airmen from Columbus AFB that have participated include Capt. Max Adler 41st FTS, Capt. Donald Kinnee 50th FTS and Capt. Afton Brown, now stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.