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National Guard sergeant from Crocker competes in Bataan memorial march
National Guard sergeant from Crocker competes in Bataan memorial march

Sgt. Kristie Williams (right) of the 35th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, walks with Sgt. Maj. Sharon Belt of the National Guard's Medical Detachment in Jefferson City during the 20th anniversary of the Bataan Memorial Death March.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (April 20, 2009) — For Missouri Army National Guard Sgt. Kristie Williams, a Crocker resident and member of the 35th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March has been both an educational and emotional experience.

Williams has competed in the event, which has been held nearly annually in New Mexico since 1989, for six of the last eight years. This year’s event on March 29 at White Sands Missile Range marked the 20th anniversary of the march.

About 5,400 people participated in this year’s march, Williams said. The 26.2-mile trek honors the 78,000 American and Filipino prisoners who were forced to endure a 65-mile march to a prison camp with little food and water in 1942 after the fall of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. Roughly 11,000 prisoners died on the march, and tens of thousands more died in Japanese prison camps.

The commemorative march draws service members from every branch, as well as civilians and international contestants.

Williams first competed in the event in 2002.

“My very first year, I went on a whim,” said Williams, the brigade administrative noncommissioned officer. “A team had lost a member and I was the replacement.”

The experience was enlightening and the flight home proved memorable as an engine fire forced an emergency landing in El Paso, Texas.

In 2003, the event was canceled for the first and only time since it began because the vast number of deployments. Williams returned to it in 2004 as part of the Missouri Guard team, but despite not being on the official team list, came back the next three years at her own expense, before taking 2008 off to have a baby.

“Initially, I wondered what I had gotten myself into after that first one,” said Williams, a 1993 graduate of Belle High School. “I didn’t think I would ever do it again. But there is so much history; it’s just a really amazing thing to be a part of. I don’t know of another event that is tied to so much history.”

Survivors of the actual march often attend and share their stories as do relatives of those who were involved in the deadly journey to keep the memory of those who went through the horrific event alive.

“You see people all along the way — Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and civilians with shirts on that say, ‘In memory of my grandfather,’” Williams said. “You get to talk with survivors, shake their hands and meet with them. A lot of them still like to tell their story. That’s why I enjoy the end result, which is the show of respect.”

Military participants compete in several different classes as individuals and teams, broken down by gender and whether they go in their battle dress uniform with a 35-pound backpack — heavy — or without the pack — light.

“I compete in the female military light category,” said Williams, who has been in the Guard for 11 years. “I wear my boots, uniform and a camel back.”

The march itself is challenging because of the terrain and the heat,

This year was especially difficult because of 27- to 51-mph gusts of wind, Williams said.

“But as difficult as the experience is walking 26.2 miles, I always keep in mind that the soldiers who were surrendered, that actually went through it, went through unbelievable conditions,” she said. “They were essentially sacrificed for the good of the group.

“I do appreciate what they went through in their service to have what we have now. It gets to me. It’s sad.”

She finished in about 8 hours and 40 minutes, about an hour off her best finish. But for Williams, what she gets out of the march is not so much about the competition.

“I don’t necessarily go to compete — it’s just something I enjoy being a part of,” Williams said. “I enjoy just seeing the survivors. There is one in particular, John Mims, which we always enjoy seeing. His son was a part of the Missouri National Guard.”

Williams also uses the march to meet with an old friend, Sgt. Maj. Sharon Belt of the Guard’s Medical Detachment in Jefferson City.

“We always fly out and meet and stay at the same place — she goes on her own, too,” Williams said. “I believe this was her 11th march.”

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