LACLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Twenty special tactics Airmen began an 11-day ruck march at 2:00 a.m. Feb. 22 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Medina Annex, Texas, and will be traveling 830 miles to Hurlburt Field, Florida.
The Airmen are rucking to pay tribute to Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin, who was killed in Afghanistan Nov. 27, 2018, along with 19 other special tactics Airmen who have been killed in action since 9/11.
The route mimics the two year training passage endured by special tactics Airmen as they begin their training at Medina Annex and later graduate at Hurlburt Field after becoming combat ready.
“This ruck march serves to help us remember our fallen brothers and their families,” said Brig. Gen. Claude K. Tudor Jr., 24th Special Operations Wing commander. “We want to make sure they’re never forgotten. Whether or not we knew each of the men individually, they’re part of our team. They’re our brothers in arms.”
The ruck march provides an opportunity for special tactics Airmen to share the stories of the fallen amongst themselves, their families and the American public, added Tudor.
As someone who knew Elchin personally, Staff Sgt. Sean O’Hearn, 24th SOW special tactics combat controller, described his personality as vibrant and infectious.
“Dylan was a dear friend of mine,” recalled O’Hearn. “He was the type of person who lit up the room. He always had a smile on his face and lifted up his teammates and friends in any situation. He always made the situation better and was someone you always wanted to be around.”
The ruck march is also an opportunity for Airmen to share not only the types of people the fallen heroes were, but also some of the stories that live on in their memories.
Even those who knew him indirectly, like Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Guilmain, 24th SOW command chief, described Elchin as an “incredible teammate.”
“It speaks a lot to the caliber of a man when you feel like you knew him without having ever met face-to-face,” said Guilmain. “Everyone unequivocally said he’s someone they wouldn’t give up for anything. He brought personality to and was the lifeblood of the teams he was on.”
The event isn't only about remembering fallen heroes, but about supporting and honoring the families they’ve left behind.
Memorial events like the ruck march are also crucial to the special operations community, said Tudor.
“We want to keep the gold star families tight knit in our community forever,” said Tudor. “They’re members of our family and team just like their loved ones.
“When we went to Dylan’s memorial in Pennsylvania, we did some memorial push-ups in a small gymnasium,” he added. “As it rumbled and echoed through that gymnasium, the feeling of pride in who we are was palpable. Dylan’s mom came up to me afterwards and told me she knew we were there for her, but she didn’t really know the depth of what we would do. I told her, ‘We’re with you every step of the way and this is just the beginning.’ The ruck is another way for us to show our support to people like Dylan’s mom.”
The Special Tactics Memorial March has occurred intermittently since the first one in 2009. There has historically been an outpouring of public support all across the route.
“When we first did this route we were really surprised by the outreach,” said Maj. Sam Schindler, Special Warfare Training Wing special tactics officer. “From the time we started here, the roads were lined with military members, the press was waiting for us, the schools were releasing their students and the kids were reaching out and giving us high fives. It didn’t matter if it was the backcountry of Louisiana on a two lane road or in major cities; people would come up to us and give us hamburgers or whatever else. Everyone was able to reach out and reflect and recognize the individuals as warriors for their sacrifice.”
This community interaction allowed the special tactics community to get the word out about what special tactics Airmen did.
“You don't have to be a collegiate athlete or world class runner or swimmer or wrestler or whatever,” said Tudor. “It really just takes grit, determination and the ethics. We’re able to cultivate and develop those with these attributes into warriors. They go through 2 years of extremely arduous training that compares to only the Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and our brothers in the Marine Corps Raiders.”
All of the attributes new Airmen bring to the table and the intensive training the special operations community provides combine to create incredible warriors, said Tudor.
“It creates these men and potentially women in the future that can go into combat and solve some of the most challenging and wicked problems other people just can’t solve,” said Tudor. “Within [special tactics], you never know when you'll be called upon, or exactly what you'll be called upon to do, but we need you to be prepared for anything.”
As an example of what kind of Airmen make up the special tactics community, Tudor pointed to the way O’Hearn reacted when he heard of Elchin’s passing.
“I found out about Dylan’s passing from my teammates and I took it in as best I could,” said O’Hearn. “I was deployed in Afghanistan and had a mission in about two hours. I had to step on a helicopter and go out and execute a 48-hour mission within hours of getting notified.”
“I just thought back to Dylan and the type of person he was and he would want me to do and just dove into my work,” said O’Hearn. “I understood we both loved what we do, and I just poured myself into my work to honor him.”
The impact of Airmen like O’Hearn and Elchin is not lost on special tactics senior leadership, said Tudor.
“As a command team, [Guilmain] and I take our charge very seriously from a culture perspective,” said Tudor. “The culture and the ethics and everything we try to instill is so important. These men are stepping to the line knowing they could potentially give their lives, but they know the command chief and I will always have their back, and their families will always be taken care of, and they will never ever be forgotten.”
The ruck march is a manifestation of the grit, honor and sacrifice that characterize what it means to be a part of this tight-knit community, added Guilmain.
“Putting a 50 pound pack on your back and walking miles for 11 days is a challenge,” said Guilmain. “It’s small compared to what he gave, but it's a tangible example of the pride we have in Dylan, and our way of honoring him.”