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Honoring the fallen, one step at a time

Apr. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Former Navy SEAL Coleman Ruiz takes part in Carry The Load's relay walk in 2012. The group works to help more Americans become familiar with the sacrifices made by service members and their families.
Former Navy SEAL Coleman Ruiz takes part in Carry The Load's relay walk in 2012. The group works to help more Americans become familiar with the sacrifices made by service members and their families. (J. Miles Cary/ / The Associated Press)
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Devgru veteran

Ruiz, a 1998 Naval Academy grad, served 13 years in the Navy SEALs. His last tour was with the storied Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team 6.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is about barbeques and baseball games.

But one veterans group is working to remind fellow citizens of the larger meaning of the holiday and why it is even more important as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close.

The nonprofit Carry The Load, founded by former Navy SEALs, is leading a 2,000-mile walk relaying the U.S. flag from West Point, N.Y., to Dallas, culminating in Memorial Day rallies. Organizers are welcoming people to the relay, now in its third year, which gets roughly 6,000 participants. The group’s goal is to rally Americans around the sacrifices made by those in their communities.

Former Lt. Cmdr.Coleman Ruiz, 39, a Carry The Load board member and organizer who served 13 years as a SEAL, spoke to Military Times in the run-up to the events about why you should get involved. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q. What do you want to change about Memorial Day?

A. What Carry The Load offers is a program that provides an interactive way to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day by connecting Americans to other American sacrifices: local firefighters and rescue personnel and military in your community that you may not know about. It gives you a chance to reflect on what it costs the country to provide all of our holidays and all of our barbeques on that very weekend. We don’t want people walking around sulking. But we do want people to spend some time where you can walk and reflect on the people in your community.

Q. How does the relay work?

A. The American flag walks all day and all night. From April 29 in West Point, N.Y., to May 25, when the flag arrives in Dallas, that flag moves under human power. Those who have lost someone in service to the country, they carry a heavy load on their shoulders, a virtual one and a real one, of having to live the rest of their life without a dad, mom, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter. They live with that. It seems like a very small thing for us to do that. For entire the month of May, we walk a mile or two or 2,000 in their shoes.

Q. The U.S. is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. What’s the value of continuing the relay into peacetime?

A. We as a nation have amnesia. To many Americans, it’s Sept. 10 again. The typical family who’s lost someone overseas, the only thing they ever ask for is for people to remember. There are families who will live the next 50 to 60 years without a dad or mom or uncle. It’s our hope that Carry The Load events will help people stay educated on the type of sacrifices that were made by more families than they realize in their communities and to remember some of those people.

Q. Who are you doing this for?

A. [Marine Maj.] Doug Zembiec was a wrestling teammate of mine at the Naval Academy, killed in the summer of 2007. A guy in my troop was killed serving with me in Iraq; his name was [Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL)] Mark Carter. Unfortunately, I did two death notifications to families. One was [Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL)] Tom Valentine, who died in a parachute accident in the spring of 2008. And I did a death notification to Kelly Brown when [Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL)] Adam Brown was killed in the spring of 2010. Most of the time it’s the people I knew personally, but every year I meet somebody else.

Q. What can American learn from its veterans?

A. They’re never a victim. They don’t make excuses. They don’t really recognize roadblocks as legitimate roadblocks, and their sense of serving their teammates is higher than your standard, private sector, non-service person.

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