CARLISLE, Ark. — Photos pinned on the military backpacks of a line of marchers flapped in the breeze as they carried flags in the darkness at 4 a.m. Wednesday near Carlisle, Ark.
In the marchers' minds, it's April 24, 2004 in Iraq.
"[I] woke up early one morning from mortars," remembered one marcher.
It was a terrible day for the Arkansas National Guard.
"I’m carrying Chief Kordsmeier, Capt. Bo Felder, Staff Sgt. Stacey Brando, Staff Sgt. Billy Orton," the former soldiers said.
They were four friends all killed at once, and it was in their honor the guard members got up early to walk with Carry the Load National Relay team.
"Most of us are carrying 35 to 50 pounds," said former Sgt. Scott Osborn as he leaned forward beneath a stuffed rucksack. The extra weight is a symbol of the pain.
Osborn's wife and daughter walked, too.
"I try to teach my kids the true meaning of Memorial Day,” said Maryah Osborn.
Emily, 13, made it 15 miles as she trudged between rice fields. The rest traveled 20.
The memory of local Marine Tommy Parker went with them. His photo pinned to Bo Achenbach’s pack.
“So I’m carrying for him," Achenbach said. "His dad asked me to carry him.”
Limping, blistered and exhausted, they walked on.
Often in the front of the line was former Marine Jeff Pierson. In Iraq, he disarmed hidden bombs. He walked in frustration over military suicides.
"I’ve had had a couple friends who took their lives," he said. "And these guys were men amongst men. We've got to do something."
The Carry the Load relay team members continued on, never stopping. Thursday afternoon, as the sun beamed down, one man carried a flag down Highway 67. Trucks roared by and John Deere tractors worked the fields.
In some places, dozens came out to cheer or join the team. It seemed like the whole Hot Springs Police Department turned out.
Carry the Load co-founder Clint Bruce gave them encouragement and thanked them.
"I’ll tell you the story of Carry the Load is this," he said. "I was mad. I was angry that America had forgotten my friends."
Bruce shared his story beneath a large Carry the Load banner at a La Quinta in Hot Springs, Ark. But, the former Navy SEAL told the team of walkers he’s not mad anymore because each year he sees the support grow.
So does Kelley Brown, the young widow of Navy SEAL Adam Brown. We first met her in 2012, when she could barely speak through her tears. This year, she joined marchers, smiled and handed out small American flags.
“This is our fourth-year anniversary of losing Adam,” she said. "I’m still trying to come out here and walk it off. But, knowing that Clint is going to be here, knowing the guys will be here, knowing there are every-day people who come out here and care makes it easier."
The team will pick up bigger and bigger crowds as they move into Texas. Thousands will join them at Reverchon Park in Dallas this Memorial Day weekend and they’ll ask each other, “Who are you carrying?" There’s only one wrong answer to that question according to Bruce, “no one."