Veterans, volunteers trek 1,700 miles to ask: Who are you carrying?



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Posted on May 25, 2012 at 10:49 PM

Updated Saturday, May 26 at 9:26 AM

In a small RV in rural Arkansas, not far from the Tennessee border, a former Navy SEAL straps on an old pair of sports sandals that he has already taped up and restitched to hold together.

"These sandals were Doug Zembiec's. He was my wrestling teammate at the Naval Academy," Coleman Ruiz said. "He was killed in the summer of 2007."

Marine Major Zembiec earned the nickname "Lion of Falujah." His sandals are still walking the walk.

Coleman Ruiz is walking all the way from West Point, New York, to Dallas.

About 1,700 miles, in five-mile segments. He wants to make us think about Memorial Day.

"We are the Carry the Load national relay, is what you see here," Ruiz explained to a group of students who stopped to cheer for him.

He drew them into the effort, and down Highway 70 they went. His drive and enthusiasm are infectious.

It's a simple plan, hatched by another former SEAL, Clint Bruce, who lives in North Texas. He joined Ruiz and a small band of volunteers in Arkansas for part of the journey.

They walked into the night, crossing the river into Little Rock, picking up a police escort.

They finally paused to eat and talk about a Memorial Day a few years ago, when all this got started. Clint Bruce was mourning the fresh loss of friends, and stewing that his country seemed oblivious to the sacrifice.

"So I put on my pack and loaded it with weight, and started walking around White Rock Lake," Bruce said. "And it was hot, and it hurt, and that was good."

He said an old man with a military demeanor seemed to recognize what he was trying to do.

"He goes, 'Hey son, who are you carrying?' And it kind of unlocked it. Literally took my breath away," Bruce remembered.

"Carry the Load" was born that moment.

This year, Clint Bruce recruited Coleman Ruiz to carry the idea beyond Dallas. Volunteers come and go along the route.

To spell Ruiz, 61-year-old businessman and University of Georgia college instructor Dill Driscoll has walked many of the legs on taped-up ankles. Sometimes walking alone, in the middle of the night.

During three days in Arkansas, we met 68-year-old retired First Sergeant Bill Gamby.

"I'm carrying the load for my son, who passed away from cancer 15 years ago, and was in the army," he told us, sweating heavily in the heat.

Former soldier Robbin Strawser strapped a heavy brace on his leg.

"It will do what it's supposed to do," he said, grimacing a little.

He is disabled from a parachute training accident. Strawser got a pain killing shot, then limped a full five-mile segment. He said he was carrying all the friends he lost.

Dentist Patrick Fields closed his office, and got his staff to walk seven-and-a-half miles with him near Hot Springs.

Dr. Fields carried high school classmate Adam Brown, who later became a SEAL and good friend to Ruiz. Two years ago, Coleman Ruiz was on the team sent to notify Adam's Brown's wife that her husband died in a firefight in Afghanistan.

Ruiz took the relay through Hot Springs to see Brown's widow, who he said is as strong as her husband.

"My husband was a notifier," Kelley Brown said. "I know the pain and torture he went through from that event. God was allowing me to see parts of that to be able to get ready for what was about to happen to me."

But no one could foresee what was about to happen to Kelley Brown.

First, Adam's closest friends in the elite SEAL community rallied around her, and promised they'd always be there for her and her two children.

Then insurgents shot down a helicopter in Afghanistan, killing all 38 on board, including 22 SEALs. Adam's team members.

"The Chinook went down with all of them. All my guys. I say my guys -- my friends' husbands," Kelley Brown said. "I flew two-and-a-half weeks of funerals probably. The month of August. The whole month of August."

That's the kind of load Coleman Ruiz wants Americans to think about on Memorial Day.

Citizens have turned out to greet them in some towns. In others, they pass almost unnoticed.

They hope crowds begin to swell as the procession moves closer to Dallas. Thousands are expected for a celebration in Reverchon Park Sunday afternoon.

It's been a long walk from New York. Coleman Ruiz said it has not been a hard walk.

He has done 12 deployments, mostly to the Middle East, and said he knows plenty of soldiers and SEALs who've done more.

"Hard is kissing your wife and kids when you deploy, or notifying a spouse her husband has been killed," he said. "Challenging is what we're doing here."

His challenge for the rest of us: who are we carrying?

For more information on the route, and how to participate or contribute, go to