COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) --
Two Airmen from Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, began a 100-mile marching journey with an American flag the morning of Sept. 10, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and traveled through the day and night to arrive at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City on 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, managed the setup of this year’s march, its seventh iteration, and estimated approximately 25 people participated along the way.
For Leetch, this is his fifth year being involved and this is 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. In 2018, the group raised $10,500 and raised just shy of $10,000 again this year, according to their Facebook page. All proceeds will help 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 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 provided live updates of their journey via Instagram and Facebook page: 100for911 and 9/11 Memorial 100 Mile March, respectively.
During the march, participants were encouraged to complete as many miles as they could. A support van followed the group so marchers could take breaks when 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 stopped 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 looked forward to doing it once again and that 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,” Carpenter said. He 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 reaching 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 bagpipes and everything playing, you will shed a tear,” Carpenter said.
Leetch and Carpenter represented members of Columbus AFB this year, but other recent Airmen from the installation participated including Capt. Max Adler, 41st FTS, Capt. Donald Kinnee, 50th FTS and Capt. Afton Brown, now stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.