RICHMOND, Va. – A group of active duty service members, veterans and family members are redefining what it means to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Gathered at the Virginia War Memorial early Jan. 7, this small community embarked on a journey that pushed them far beyond their comfort zone, all in an effort to raise support and awareness for a cause that hits close to home.
Freedom Ruck, as it’s called, takes marchers approximately 106 miles from Richmond to the Arlington National Cemetery.
The Freedom Ruck
For anyone who has served in the military, the words “ruck march” might remind them of the last must-pass events at basic training. For Vic Wise, however, ruck marching has served as a way to honor service members past and present.
“I come from a military family, explained Wise. “I have seen the physical and emotional toll men and women in uniform face both at home and overseas.”
Inspired by their sacrifice and their commitment to serve, Wise decided he had to do something.
“I’ve always wanted to give back in a way that was impactful, but I never really knew where to start,” said Wise. “I never served, but both my dad and my brother were in the Army.”
Seven years ago, while running past the Virginia War Memorial, it hit him.
“The sun was rising over the river and everything was calm,” said Wise. “I had an epiphany of ‘This is where I need to start.’”
Wise determined he wanted to do something over the course of two days to accurately showcase the physical and mental sacrifice men and women in uniform face on a daily basis.
“I wanted to do something no one has ever done before,” said Wise. “I thought, ‘What if I took my ruck, attach an American flag to it and ruck from the Virginia War Memorial all the way to Arlington National Cemetery?’”
Wise did the research – the entire journey would take him approximately 106 miles up Route 1.
“We coined the name Freedom Ruck to honor those who have sacrificed for their country,” said Wise. “This wasn’t about me. This was about them.”
Wise took to social media to share plans of his upcoming journey, even catching the attention of country music star Brantley Gilbert.
“Brantley was gracious enough to share about the ruck on social media,” said Wise. “That really helped spread the word of Freedom Ruck.”
On Jan. 10, 2014, nearly two weeks after his initial run, Wise stood on the steps of the Virginia War Memorial, accompanied by a small group of friends and family to see him off.
“They didn’t really understand what I was doing,” laughed Wise. “But I was thankful for their support.”
Despite a constant flow of rain and wind, Wise pushed north, stopping every so often to refuel and to change his socks.
Family members updated followers on social media of Wise’s progress while passing cars honked their support.
On Jan. 12, an exhausted Wise made it to Arlington National Cemetery.
Not only did Wise complete the 106-mile journey from Richmond to Arlington, but he also met his goal of completing the ruck in under 48 hours.
His final time was 47 hours and 45 minutes.
“After all was said and done, we ended up raising about $10,000, which we donated to The Navy SEAL Foundation,” explained Wise.
The foundation, which provides support and assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and its families, brought Wise’s mission to honor service members full circle.
In the days following the ruck, Wise received an outpouring of support, including offers to ruck alongside him should he complete the 106-mile trek again.
“Initially, I thought this was just going to be a one-time thing,” admitted Wise. “So many people wanted to be a part of Freedom Ruck that it turned into an annual event.”
For the seventh year in a row, Wise was back at the Virginia War Memorial. This time he was accompanied by a group of 15-20 marchers, brought together by their military and law enforcement ties.
In the crowd was U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Hunter Kiser, a recruiter stationed in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“This is my second year participating in the Freedom Ruck,” said Kiser. “I’ve known Vic for years, but I’ve never been stationed close enough to really take part until now.”
While many of the participants tap out after a certain point, Kiser says the goal is always to finish.
“Last year I did about 25 miles and this year I got up to about mile 48 before I had to call it,” explained Kiser. “But I’ve gone into each year hoping to conquer all 106 miles.”
For 48 miles, Kiser and the other participants shared stories of their military experiences, their families and offered life advice for those seeking it.
“For the first 30 miles, there was enough people to jump around and get to know each other,” said Kiser. “But when all you have are the flashing lights of the escort in front of you in the middle of the night, you need music or books on tape to keep your mind occupied.”
With just about one week after Freedom Ruck 2020, Kiser already has his sights on Freedom Ruck 2021.
“It’s already written on my mirror: Freedom Ruck 2021,” shared Kiser. “I see it every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to bed. I’ll be ready.”
Since stepping off for his first Freedom Ruck in 2014, Freedom Ruck has raised nearly $55,000 for The Navy SEAL foundation.
“The foundation’s focus is to cover outside what the government will cover should a teammate become ill or injured,” explained Wise.
In particular, the foundation hosts an annual Gold Star Family retreat for families dealing with the loss of loved ones.
“It allows these families to come together and heal,” said Wise. “It’s providing families with the support they need.”
In the years following the launch of Freedom Ruck, Wise has heard directly from families benefiting from The Navy SEAL Foundation. From emails and letters, to hugs and words of thanks, Wise says he uses the support he has received as motivation during his rucks.
“I’ve had Gold Star Families reach out and share about what the foundation has done for their families,” said Wise. “This is why we’re out here and why we do what we do.”
To learn more about Freedom Ruck and how you can support the Navy SEAL Foundation, visit www.freedomruck.com.