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NEWS | June 3, 2024

Marching in the spirit: 407th Civil Affairs Battalion hosts Norwegian Ruck March

By Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams 353d Civil Affairs Command

 As a cool breeze filled the air, clusters of Soldiers could be seen scattered throughout an open field. Split into groups of threes and fours, Soldiers adjusted each other’s rucksacks by tightening down straps, repacking gear, and securing loose items.

A short time later, a tall, slender figure called out to the event participants, signaling the start of a mission brief. With a smile, the U.S. Army Reserve chaplain outlined the course route to the Soldiers who looked intently at their maps.

After finishing the briefing, the chaplain led the group in one final prayer before step-off time. This ruck march wasn’t just about earning a badge but marrying the physical with the spiritual.

More than 30 Soldiers with the 407th Civil Affairs Battalion participated in a Marsjmerket Spiritual Fitness and Resiliency event here two weeks ago to increase unit readiness and earn a Det Militære Marsjmerke, or The Norwegian Foot-March badge.

U.S. Army Soldiers earn this Norwegian armed forces skill badge by completing an 18.6 mile (30-kilometer) course while wearing a 25lb Army rucksack within their applicable time standard category. The Marsjmerket originated in 1915 to expose civilians and new military recruits to what it is like to be in the field.

“We have reflection questions at every mile so as soldiers march, they can think about different spiritual aspects or different meanings, in how they are struggling or succeeding in life,” Chaplain (Cpt.) Benjamin Ziegler, a chaplain with the 407th Civil Affairs Battalion, said. “It's an opportunity for reflection and to also motivate Soldiers to earn that badge while sharing this experience together.”

Ziegler said two years ago, he participated in a virtual Luxembourg ruck march and practiced using a series of prayer prompts. After that experience, the unit’s previous chaplain and he started to plan this version of the spiritual resiliency event.

“What I think is so unique about ours is the aspect of spiritual reflection in the midst of the ruck march,” Ziegler said. “In one way, it's a unifying event and people get very excited about something like this. It's something that we can do to come together and build relationships in the community with other units in our area.”

Ziegler said a contributing factor to hosting the event was to provide an opportunity to connect with soldiers in the unit and let them know that the unit ministry team is there to serve them.

“I think we should be known for more than offering a pocket full of candy,” Ziegler said. “Not only are we a voice that can advocate for soldiers, but most importantly, we provide a confidential ear.”

As time passed, groups of Soldiers started to disperse into smaller elements, with individuals employing different methods of rucking, from timed sprints to steady pacing. For some, it was all about sticking to their respective strategies, while for others, it was all about enjoying the moment.

“I ran cross country all through high school, did lots of 5k’s, and it's just something I enjoy,” Master Sgt. Andrew Paulson, a civil affairs sergeant with B Co., 407th Civil Affairs Battalion, said. “For me, it's a great opportunity to just focus on one thing so I can drown out the rest of the noise and spend an opportunity just connecting with our lord and savior.”

Paulson said the ruck march was a therapeutic way for him to focus on himself rather than his daily responsibilities, civilian and military career. He said he had completed the ruck march before, but this was a unique experience.

“This is the third time completing the Norwegian ruck march so for me so it's not about the badge or me trying to prove anything,” Paulson said. “I did see a couple of the thoughts, on the little cards, and it did make me smile because it was kind of directing us to our creator, so I did appreciate that.”

After several hours, the sun disappeared, forcing marchers to use their flashlights to navigate the course. As red lights slowly flickered throughout parts of the road, it was apparent that the rigor of the event had caught up to some participants.

Paulson said that completing a ruck march involves proper training in how to pack a ruck and proper care for one’s feet, as not wearing the right boots could impact one’s pressure points.

“When soldiers are packing their rucks, they have to make sure it's tight,” Paulson said. They should make sure their ruck’s horizontal and vertical straps are tight. Ensure the weight is dispersed evenly putting the heaviest stuff at the top. They should want the ruck to be high and tight on their back and lastly make sure they're taking care of their feet with foot powder, and sock liners.

Paulson said the event provides an opportunity for Soldiers to stay mission-ready and build up their mental toughness.

“It's hard on the body right but I take this opportunity and use it as a way to grow,” Paulson said. “If we're going to do an engagement we might park our trucks outside of town, with a couple of soldiers to guard the trucks, and then would walk into town. Also what if we're up in a mountain and the road is washed out and we can't get our trucks through there, somehow we still have to get to our destination. We plan for the best but prepare for the worst.”

During the last hours of the event, a small grey minivan slowly navigated the bumpy roads of the course, with the chaplain throwing chem lights onto the ground to assist participants in navigating through the darkness of the night.

Ziegler said he hoped event participants were able to experience moments of self-reflection that would make this ruck march a memorable experience.

“Some of the questions we asked were: 'What is your biggest fear?'; 'What are you struggling with?' and 'Who can you talk to?' so I don't expect many of them to arrive at an answer for any particular question, but at least prompt the question,” said Ziegler. “Maybe it's tonight, a week, a month, or six months from now, hopefully they'll come back to that question and look to that meaning in their life and those relationships.”

A ruck march can present moments of physical pain, exhaustion, and doubt but also fill one’s spirit with hope, fortitude, and dedication.