A year ago in March, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter descended into soupy fog off the coast of the Florida Panhandle and never returned. The helicopter crashed into water southwest of Eglin Air Force Base, killing all seven elite Special Operations Marines and all four Louisiana National Guardsmen aboard.
The incident sent shock waves through the Louisiana National Guard and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the elite force the service established about a decade ago to carry out dangerous missions in remote locations. Now, a year later, fellow members of MARSOC are preparing a grueling send-off: With 45 pounds in rucksacks on their backs, they will march next month some 770 miles from the shore in Navarre, near the crash site to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, home to MARSOC's headquarters.
"I've literally been planning this since March 11, which is the day after it went down," said Nathan Harris, a staff sergeant in MARSOC who was friends with a few of the Marines killed. "As soon as I saw the news reports and heard the rumors that it might be our guys, I started thinking about ways that we could honor their memory."
The effort is known as the Marine Raider Memorial March. At least 14 Special Operations Marines and veterans will be involved as they raise money for the Brothers in Arms Foundation while on leave from the military. The organization has assisted the families of the fallen Marines since last year, Harris said.
Killed in the crash were Marine Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III; Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders; Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp; Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif; Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn; Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol; and Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock. They were in Florida for amphibious training, and all part of the same tight-knit team. Shaw, a Naval Academy graduate, served as their commander. Saunders was their team chief.
Also killed were Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Wayne Griffin Jr., and Chief Warrant Officer 4 George David Strother, who piloted the aircraft, and the other members of their helicopter crew: Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron and Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich.
Each member of the march will carry a commemorative plate in the pack with the names of all 11 fallen service members etched on it. The marchers will be split into seven teams and move in rotating 10-mile legs 24 hours per day for 11 days beginning March 11. Each team will represent one of the Marines killed, and take turns carrying a paddle that washed ashore from the helicopter wreckage. It has been decorated with the dog tags of the 11 fallen service members, and will be presented to MARSOC leaders at Camp Lejeune.
The route will begin at Navarre Beach, and work its way toward Panama City before cutting northeast into southern Georgia and South Carolina. It will cross through Savannah, Georgia, and pass by the front gate to Parris Island, the iconic Marine Corps recruit training center in South Carolina.