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Memorial Day Ruck March honors the fallen, POWs, and MIAs

Forrest J. Waterbury

Justin Michael organized the Memorial Day Ruck March in Marble Falls to remember people such as his friend U.S. Army Specialist Forrest J. Waterbury (pictured), 25, who died March 14, 2007, in Iraq. The march, which will be at an easy pace, starts at 9 a.m. Monday, May 31, from the Walmart parking lot, 2700 U.S. 281. Courtesy photo

Memorial Day is not just a day off for Justin Michael but a time to remember those who gave their lives for this country. To remind others of this sacrifice, Michael organized a Memorial Day Ruck March at 9 a.m. Monday, May 31, from the Marble Falls Walmart parking lot, 2700 U.S. 281, to the Lake Marble Falls bridge and back.

Everyone is welcome to join the walk, which is about 5.2 miles round trip.

“I’m going to take it easy and slow,” the National Guardsman said.  

The trek, he explained, is to remember fallen U.S. military members, prisoners of war, and those missing in action.

This is the second ruck that Michael has organized. He did one in 2017 but didn’t widely promote it. While on patrol as a Marble Falls police officer over the past several years, he noticed a high number of Gold Star license plates, which means the person has lost a family member in service to country.

So this year, Michael decided to reach out to those families and invite them to make the hike in honor of their loved ones, but anyone can join, he added.

Walkers should wear appropriate shoes and clothing and bring water. Since it is a ruck walk, Michael wants participants to wear a backpack or rucksack with up to 30 pounds — whatever is comfortable — of weight or gear in it. Much of the walk will have sidewalks, but some portions will not, so walkers can wear reflective vests to help drivers better see them.

During the ruck march, people can carry POW, MIA, and, of course, U.S flags.

“We’re going to step off at 9 o’clock,” Michael said. “I’ll take an easy pace.”

As well as being a National Guardsman with deployments under his belt, Michael has personal connections to Memorial Day. 

His grandfather, the late Robert “Bob” Bearden, served in World War II as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s H Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, that jumped into Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Like so many paratroopers on that day, Bearden found himself separated from much of his unit when he reached the ground and behind enemy lines. He and a group of paratroopers managed to locate each other and put up a tough fight against the Germans. Bearden suffered at least two injuries in the first couple of days of fighting.

Eventually, the Germans surrounded the group of American paratroopers, who had run out of ammunition and food. Bearden spent the next eight months in German POW camps. 

The Russians liberated Bearden’s POW camp on Jan. 31, 1945. By this time, he had lost about a third of his body weight. To reconnect with the U.S. Army, the American journeyed across multiple countries — Germany, Russia, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt — before arriving in Naples, Italy.

Bearden finally set foot on American soil, in Boston, in April 1945. He returned to Texas and lived a full life as a family man, community leader, and entrepreneur. Bearden died on Aug. 18, 2017, just a few days before his 95th birthday. 

Michael’s other connection to Memorial Day, and one of the reasons he joined the military, is U.S. Army Spc. Forrest “John” Waterbury. The two lived near each other growing up. 

Waterbury joined the Army in 2001 and became a M1A1 Abrams Tank crewman. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

On March 14, 2007, Waterbury was killed by a sniper shot during small arms fire outside of Ramadi, Iraq. He was on his third tour of duty in Iraq.

However, Waterbury’s legacy isn’t just how he died but also how he lived. The Army specialist posthumously earned a Bronze Star with Valor for his bravery under fire during a previous deployment in Iraq when he was a member of an armored division out of Fort Riley, Kansas.

His platoon was conducting a patrol on Aug. 12, 2005, in Iraq when insurgents attacked their convoy, first with an improvised explosive device and then followed by small arms fire and a rocket-propelled grenade.

The attack seriously wounded the platoon leader. Another soldier in the platoon leader’s vehicle left his machine gun to help the injured man. Waterbury left a different vehicle and made his way through enemy fire to the lieutenant’s vehicle. 

Waterbury got into the turret and laid down fire, which gave the other gunner time to save the lieutenant and get him to safety.

“I want people to take a moment on Memorial Day to remember those who died for this country,” Michael said. “Even if they don’t come out on the ruck, still take some time to understand who the day is for.”