HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --
Aches, blisters, exhaustion, pain…830 miles, five states, 11 days…are a minute price to pay to honor the fallen. The push to continue on for these Air Commandos come from their communities’ legacy of never forgetting a fallen comrade, from the pride instilled within themselves, and from reaching down and grabbing one of 20 batons that contained an inscribed name of a fallen teammate.
Air Force Special Operations Command Special Tactics Airmen, along with a mission support force of 19 Air Commandos assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, began the 5th iteration of the Special Tactics Memorial March in the pre-lit dawn, Feb. 22 at Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to pay tribute to U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan J. Elchin.
“This ruck march, this fifth ruck march that we have done, is in honor of Dylan Elchin,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “It gives us an excellent opportunity, however, to remember the 19 Special Tactics warriors who have also fallen. And of course, as you have heard several times, it also gives us an opportunity in this particular case to honor those that fell alongside Dylan.”
Elchin, along with U.S. Army Capt. Andrew Ross and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Emond, were killed in action when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2018, while deployed in support of OPERATION Freedom’s Sentinel. U.S. Army Sgt. Jason McClary died later as a result of injuries sustained from the IED.
“The ruck is a good way to pass on people’s memories and to continue to talk about them,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Smith, a Special Tactics combat controller with the 24th SOW. “When you lose guys like Dylan, it is important to take the time to remember them and tell their stories. By doing things like this, where we can just stop for 11 days and ruck in their honor, it shows our gold start families how important they our brothers and they are to us.”
Local patrons and citizens from the five states the group rucked through came out to cheer, support and join for a few miles.
“It’s really inspiring to see communities come out and support us,” Smith said. “It’s awesome when they ask us what we are doing because it gives us the opportunity to talk to them about our fallen, their sacrifices and their gold star families sacrifices.”
Each small team of two ST Airmen rucked an average of 12-miles per leg and alternated teams, completing a combined 70 miles per day. Each team averaged almost 100 miles total throughout the journey.
In 2009, the ruck march originated as the “Tim Davis Memorial March” and has since been renamed to honor all fallen Special Tactics Airmen to the “Special Tactics Memorial March” and is held whenever one of their own is killed in action.
The team completed their trip with Air Force senior leadership, Air Force Special Operations Command leadership and 24th SOW leadership rucking alongside the Airmen for the last mile until completion at the Special Tactics Training Squadron for a memorial ceremony March 4, here.
“The quiet professionals that we remember today served others, they pushed limits of human condition and endured without a hint of entitlement,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “For me, that’s the essence of Special Tactics, you do what others cannot or will not do. Part of a broader special operations family--where the example of those remembered today inspires everyone to give a little bit more.”
In attendance were the Gold Star families of ST operators that have been killed in action, including relatives of Elchin, U.S. Air Force Capt. Matthew Roland, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. John Chapman, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mark Forester.
“To our Gold Star Families, we are committed to ensuring that your father, your husband, your son, your brother, will never die twice,” Goldfein said. “First, on the worst day of your life, when they make that ultimate sacrifice and again, if their service were ever to stop saying their name. We will always remember.”
The term “Gold Star family” is a modern reference to the service flag. During World War II, families with loved ones serving in the armed forces would display a blue star, which was replaced by a gold star if that loved one passed away, allowing members of the community to know the price that family had paid.
The route of the ruck echoed the years-long path ST Airmen take to be trained and certified, beginning immediately after basic military training graduation at the Medina Annex in Texas and ending with graduation from the STTS here in Florida.
“For the special tactics operators, we never forget the significance of this march. From Medina Annex where the training starts to Hurlburt Field where the training ends, where the lines of history and heroism intersect,” Goldfein said. “The batons that the marchers carried embodied that legacy and in a moment will literally be passed from generation to generation of Special Tactics warriors, the long blue line.”
A memorial baton inscribed with each of the fallen Special Tactics Airman’s names was carried throughout the way to honor the fallen:
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. William McDaniel, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Feb. 22, 2002
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Juan Ridout, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Feb. 22, 2002
U.S. Air Force Master. Sgt. John Chapman, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Mar. 4, 2002
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Mar. 4, 2002
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Sather, Special Tactics Combat Controller, April 8, 2003
U.S. Air Force Capt. Derek Argel, Special Tactics Officer, May 30, 2005
U.S. Air Force Capt. Jeremy Fresques, Special Tactics Officer, May 30, 2005
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Casey Crate, Special Tactics Combat Controller, May 30, 2005
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Adam Servais, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Aug. 19, 2006
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Scott Duffman, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Feb. 18, 2007
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Jefferson, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Mar. 22, 2008
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Davis, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Feb. 20, 2009
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Daniel Sanchez, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Sep. 16, 2010
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mark Forester, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Sep. 29, 2010
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Brown, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Aug. 6, 2011
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Zerbe, Special Tactics Pararescueman, Aug. 6, 2011
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew Harvell, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Aug. 6, 2011
U.S. Air Force Capt. Matthew Roland, Special Tactics Officer, Aug. 26, 2015
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Aug. 26, 2015
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin, Special Tactics Combat Controller, Nov. 27, 2018
Special Tactics is U.S. Special Operation Command’s tactical air and ground integration force, and the Air Force’s special operations ground force, leading Global Access, Precision Strike, Personnel Recovery and Battlefield Surgery operations on the battlefield.
Today, there are about 1,000 Special Tactics operators who combine the core skills of Special Operations Forces with the tactical integration of the world’s greatest airpower, working to find unique solutions to ground problems. They are the most decorated community in the Air Force since the end of the Vietnam War, with one Medal of Honor, ten Air Force Crosses, and 44 Silver Stars.