April 9, 1942, marked what is known today as the Bataan Death March where tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces. The group of World War II service members had been tasked with defending the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines. Under Japanese oppression, those soldiers were forced to march for days, without proper nutrition, to a prisoner of war camp. Many died along the way.
To honor those who had endured such hardship 72 years ago, military and civilian marchers gathered at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 23, for the 25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March. Among those participants was Tech Sgt. Jennifer Lindner, 412th Operations Group, Training Flight chief, who volunteered to represent Edwards Air Force Base.
“They walked endless miles for [about] five days straight. The Japanese mistreated them, they beat them, they shot at them and they deprived them of food and water. They went through drastic measures and came marching through the jungles in the heat of the summer until they reached a POW camp,” said Lindner.
The memorial march offers two routes, a 26.2-mile course and half course which is 14.2 miles long. Participants have the choice of walking with or without a ruck sack. The terrain at White Sands is similar to Edwards in its “desert-like atmosphere” and ends with an uphill trek through sand. There are medical checkpoints throughout the march and places to get water and fruit.
Lindner first tried to complete the full, 26.2-mile march in 2011, but was disqualified at the 17-mile marker. The doctors checked Lindner’s feet and said, “that is a no-go” because she had not changed her socks in all that time. The experience “crushed” Lindner, who was inspired to give it a second try after deploying to Afghanistan in 2012, where she worked with the Defense Contract Management Agency.
“I did about 120 convoy missions outside the wire and it made me think of the Bataan, the sacrifices that those guys went through and how much more respect I have for them and what they did,” said Lindner.
This time, Linder broke in her boots, trained for six months and changed out her socks. And the second time around, she made it.
Lindner’s journey however, was not struggle-free. As she approached the 22-mile check point her small, right toe had started to hurt. She wrapped it, changed her socks, re-powdered and decided to press on.
“During those times of the march when I felt really low, it made me reflect,” said Lindner, “If they can do that for five days straight and look at what they went through, I think I can handle this. That’s kind of what inspired me to keep on going.”
“It really had an impact on me, to represent those guys, to get a feel of the pain that they went through. I was in pain, but I was able to change out my socks,” said Lindner. “They had oranges for us, they had water, Gatorade and bananas along the way and they had people checking on our feet, those guys [in the Bataan Death March] didn’t.”
One of the unique aspects of the march was the opportunity for interaction with survivors from the historical Bataan March. Participants were able to shake their hands and hear their stories. One retired chief master sergeant in particular, made an impact on Lindner. During the opening ceremony he shared how his Japanese captors had forced him to eat the heart of a snake.
“He was like, ‘to this day, I feel like I can still taste it’ and just hearing that I thought, man, how many years ago was that? And again it made me think, that’s traumatizing,” said Lindner.
Linder gained a new perspective from the experience – that the Death Bataan March was not just something that happened many years ago. For the survivors, it was a life-altering event that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives.
When Lindner reached the finish line, she heard crowds of onlookers cheering them on. She was handed a flag to wave and her time was shown on a large screen. She had spent just over nine hours marching in the heat and appreciating in a new way the sacrifices of those who served before her.
“It kind of brought a tear to my eye,” said Lindner. “We can learn a lot from our elders and we can learn a lot from the past. We can learn that they were brave and they were strong and that really inspired me.”
More than just remembrance, the memorial march was about military pride. At registration, military members were invited to display their squadron or group coins for others to see. Lindner received a 412th Operations Group coin from her group commander, Col. Rodney Todaro, to put on display.
Lindner has been in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years now and in July will have been at Edwards for four years. Several years into her service, Lindner decided to retrain and join the very selective career field of Air Force flight attendants.
According to Lindner, she does a lot of “behind the scenes” work to ensure that the distinguished visitors and military leaders she flies with are well fed and relaxed so that when they get off that plane they can “carry on with the world’s problems.”
October 2012, Lindner volunteered for a deployment to Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan where she thought she would be an inspector. When she arrived however, Lindner found out that she would be in charge of an operations section driving up-armored vehicles for ground convoys in the city of Kabul.
“Was I taken off guard? Yes. Was I scared? Yes. But was I like ‘wow’? Yes.”
In addition to coordinating transportation for visitors to Camp Phoenix, Lindner was responsible for air operations and housing units.
“I was glad I went through all that Army training because it taught me different tactics and techniques of how to handle different situations, and it paid off,” said Lindner.
“To me, it’s not ‘I’m just an Air Force flight attendant,’ I am an active duty military member serving my country and that’s why I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. I signed my name to defend my country with my life and I take that pretty seriously.”