- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The more than 400 military members and reservists who marched 18.6 miles through downtown La Plata to Waldorf and back March 16 did so in good fun, but they also had a common enemy in their sights — hunger.
By the time the final participant in the Maryland National Guard’s inaugural March Against Hunger crossed the finish line, more than three tons of donated food had been delivered to LifeStyles of Maryland in La Plata.
Beginning at the La Plata town hall on an overcast morning, about 410 marchers followed the 30-kilometer route — the distance known as the Norwegian Road March — to Laurel Springs Regional Park in La Plata, down St. Charles Parkway and east onto Billingsley Road to Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf before reversing course.
Those who completed the course in 4.5 hours or less received a badge and certificate from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, said Col. Roy Abelsen, the embassy’s military attaché, who came prepared to hand out up to 300 badges.
Abelsen said the event was the first Norwegian Road March in the country to be staged in conjunction with a National Guard unit. But since word got out that the La Plata event was being scheduled, the embassy has been contacted by several other National Guard units with interest in holding their own, he added.
“We are very pleased that this event is being held here, because we are very grateful for everything the United States has done to keep the Western world free for the last 100 years,” he said. “To fly our flag here, this is sort of a thank you, in a way.”
Preparations began in January, when Capt. Alexi Franklin, commander of the guard’s 253rd Engineer company in La Plata, also known as SAPPER, contacted Abelsen to express interest in staging a local Norwegian Road March for his company.
“I wanted to be able to give my soldiers the opportunity to get a foreign badge, and I wanted to make that opportunity open to active-duty service members so that they could see what the National Guard has to offer,” Franklin said.
Originally, the company was going to hold a roughly 50-person march at a local rail trail, but when battalion commander Lt. Col. Joe Reale caught wind of the event, he decided to turn it into a massive food drive.
“We wanted to tie it into the community,” Reale said. “Towns like La Plata have been supporting us for the last 10 years, so we figured it was time to tie it back in.”
Reale said the march also served as a way for the guard to coordinate alongside the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and its volunteer fire and emergency services departments, which will benefit all parties should they need to work together in the future during an emergency.
“I think a lot of people were surprised how well it went, but I wasn’t. I knew we could do big, ambitious, difficult things well,” Franklin said. “The event was a great opportunity to interact with our local first responders in a nonemergency setting. Hands down, the most rewarding moment wasn’t finishing the march, it was off-loading the over 6,000 pounds of food we were able to collect for the local community.”
The march was conceived in 1915, before mobile battlefield units were commonplace, as a way for soldiers to learn how to properly cover long distances while carrying a day’s worth of rations, Abelsen said.
A major component of the challenge is for soldiers to show up for work on time the next morning, Abelsen said.
“We don’t do this on Fridays,” he said. “You will limp.”
The march typically requires participants to carry a 25-pound rucksack on their backs — Franklin said the company’s readiness noncommissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hanlon, came up with the idea to fill the rucksacks with 25 pounds of food.
“Walking 30 kilometers, that is tough,” Abelsen said. “You have to walk really fast. When nobody’s looking, everyone runs. We call it ‘walgging,’ between walking and jogging.”
The guard wants to make the march an annual event, spokesman Lt. Col. Charles Kohler said.
“This area is just perfect for this type of event, where you can bring in so many different organizations,” Kohler said. “It’s a local event, but with an international flavor.”
The guard’s 244th Engineer, 231st Chemical, 104th Medical and 29th Military Police companies were also on hand. At one point during the march, the Maryland Air National Guard landed a helicopter at one of the park’s ballfields.
Among those with displays at the park was LaRubianna “Ruby” Naylor, hospital service coordinator for the Disabled American Veterans at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who was trying to recruit volunteers willing to drive disabled veterans downtown to their appointments.
Naylor said that the DAV’s transportation network program is in particular need of drivers in Southern Maryland, and emphasized that only those who are committed and can dependably fill a weekly shift should volunteer.
“If you can drive just one day a week in La Plata, it’ll help a lot,” she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering can call Naylor at 202-745-8177.
Cobb Island Volunteer Fire Department member Chuck Shaw, who serves as president of the Southern Maryland Volunteer Firemen’s Association and is the county’s fire prevention officer, was also on hand to recruit new volunteers, particularly for the high school cadet program.
Shaw said that cadets receive training that would qualify them for paid firefighting positions in other jurisdictions.