TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – With every step, they support gold star families, a group nobody ever asks to join.
As they march, they carry photos of fallen service members and rucksacks weighing between 10 and 30 pounds on their backs. Their journey is one of remembrance.
“It’s important to honor those who are no longer here and I do that by supporting their families,” said Chris Coffelt, an Air Force veteran who served with the 60th Security Forces Squadron at Travis AFB from 2000 to 2004.
Coffelt is among hundreds of people who are participating in the 10th Annual Gold Star Families Ruck March, which is being offered virtually for the first time during the month of August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A gold star family consists of immediate family members of U.S. service members who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving on active duty during a conflict. The event, organized annually by the First Sergeants Council at Travis AFB, historically featured a 10K route around the base.
The virtual ruck march, which began Aug. 1 will continue through Aug. 31 and is open to everyone. People can sign up to participate in the Gold Star Families Ruck March at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/10th-annual-travis-afb-virtual-gold-star-ruck-march-tickets-111750536864.
“Since the event has gone virtual, people can participate from anywhere,” said Master Sgt. Chad Anderson, 921st Contingency Response Squadron first sergeant and a Gold Star Families Ruck March committee member. “They can choose whether they want to ruck in their neighborhood, on a trail, at a park or anywhere else.”
More than 200 people have registered for the event from seven states including Texas, Ohio and Alaska. The ruck march has even gone international with Airmen in Italy registered to participate.
“It was incredibly important for us to find a way to support gold star families and honor fallen service members,” Anderson said. “The best way for us to hold our event and support the families of the fallen amidst the pandemic was to offer a virtual option.”
Coffelt completed a ruck march in honor of a fallen U.S. Army Soldier Aug. 16 in Auburn, California. During the 11-mile trek along the middle fork American River Quarry Trail, he carried 25-pounds in his ruck with his right arm in a sling.
“Today I’m rucking for Army Spc. Wayne Geiger, who died in 2007 in Iraq while supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Coffelt said. “I know his father through Facebook groups and that’s why I chose to ruck for him today.”
During the hike, Coffelt climbed more than 1,200 feet with one good arm over the course of four hours. He said the day before the hike he hurt his arm while playing with his daughter in a pool.
“I went to catch her as she jumped into the pool and I felt a sharp pain in my right arm,” Coffelt said. “Some family members told me I didn’t have to go because I was hurt, but I committed to being here and honoring our fallen service members and their families.”
At the six mile mark Coffelt led the reading of fallen service member’s names followed by the playing of Taps.
“By letting their families know that we are out here remembering their lost son or daughter, we are showing those families that we have not forgotten the service and sacrifice their loved ones gave,” he said.
Anderson echoed Coffelt’s sentiment.
“I have a special place in my heart for the fallen and their families,” he said. “Putting this event on is a small way we can show our appreciation for them. We owe it to them to do that. I wish we could do more.”
Several gold star families have taken to social media to show their gratitude for all those participating in the ruck march.
Tracey Vasquez, the mother of U.S. Army Spc. Manuel Vasquez, who was killed in Afghanistan in April 2012, shared her appreciation on Facebook.
“Thank you so much for walking in honor of our son, Manuel Vasquez,” she stated in a comment on the Gold Star Families Ruck March Facebook page. “Thank you for sacrificing your time for someone you did not get to meet. Manuel was a fun guy who loved to barbecue and be with friends and family. If he was here, he would have ribs and cold ones waiting for you.”
Karen Meredith, the mother of U.S. Army 1st Lt Kenneth Ballard, who was killed in May 2004 during a firefight with insurgents in Iraq, also shared her appreciation.
“Thank you for honoring my son,” she stated in a Facebook post. “Never forgotten.