It was a true honor to be asked to be the starter for the JFK 50 Mile Challenge at Sneem, Irelandon the Ring of Kerry. It was May 26. 2013. This is just before the start at 5am. Holding the flag and representing the US was a very stirring moment. It was made even more stirring because the flag belong to the local hotel owner whose brother died in Vietnam. The flag had been draped on his coffin. I was wearing my 1st Infantry Division cap.
I was there because I had walked the original 50-mile challenge in 1963, and the 50th anniversary was too tempting…too symmetrical…to pass up. I walked it in 17 hours. (A hour quicker than at age 20!). It was a beautiful walk through the Irish countryside with wonderful people and terrific support from many volunteers.
Here is an essay I wrote for the Veterans Administration Arts Festival:
50 Years/50 Miles
If I took one step I would have to take another…and another. For hours. I knew then that there would be no quitting—for any reason.
At 5:00 AM it was already getting light in that southwest chunk of Irish land that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The air was wet and cool in the tiny village of Sneem, on the Ring of Kerry. The event organizer asked me if I would mind being the starter for the JFK 50 Mile Challenge. Mind? No, of course not. But as I stood there with the 40 or so eager, laughing walkers, a flood of meaning rolled over me like an unexpected tide.
This was the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s 1963 challenge to US military officers to hike 50 miles. Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, and always gung ho younger brother, did it in one day. Wow! It became an international craze immediately.
I was a hotshot ROTC cadet, and after a late night of partying in a nearby canyon, I took to the highway with a goofy mob of Tucson folks who had never walked more than a few miles in their lives. Eighteen hours later I limped by myself into a Benson truck stop. Humbled, but I did it.
So in May, 2013, I was the only relic of the original walk—few in the crowd had been alive in 1963.Nor their parents in some cases. And I was the only American. I began to get a feel for how much Kennedy had meant to the Irish. A man handed me an American flag that was always raised and lowered to start the walk. He looked at my 1st Division cap and told me the flag had draped the coffin of his brother-in-law who was killed in Vietnam.
As the morning brightened, the understanding became clearer. This was not just a stroll through the Irish countryside; this was a walk that had taken 50 years—almost! It wouldn’t be finished until I walked every one of those miles—one for every year. So many people…Vietnam buddies, kids, parents, friends, people I loved and people I fought…were walking with me in my mind. They were giving me the strength and endurance to keep going through the cold drizzle when the mountain roads got steep and the day wore on. There was a memory with every step.
After seventeen hours I crossed the line, and a new 50 years was beginning. I knew I would have the strength to go on…to face whatever came next.