If you’re taking a ride on the W&OD Trail Memorial Day weekend, you may have a chance to pull over and salute. In a moving tribute to fallen service members, more than 100 veterans, family members and friends will make their way through Loudoun as part of the 60-mile Ruck to Remember group hike.
The event was created by Leesburg resident Keith Jolly and his fellow U. S. Marine Corps veterans in 2010, a few years after they buried a colleague in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. As the group toasted their friend, they brainstormed ways to help veterans and their families, and the Ruck to Remember 60 to 60 trek was born. Each year, participants walk 60 miles from West Virginia to Arlington National Cemetery with more than half of those miles in Loudoun.
“I realized that I had a unique privilege being in this area and the impact that we could have. I also knew that I could impact the veteran community and, without having to really force it down their throats, would find a way to empower them,” Jolly said. “The only way I could imagine doing that was a physical movement.”
The event is designed to offer a healing and bonding experience for veterans, friends and family members who have lost loved ones, while raising awareness in the community and funds for numerous charities supporting veterans.
For Jolly, who lives in Leesburg with his wife and two daughters, the W&OD Trail was a
natural choice. Jolly and co-organizers decided to start the trek in Harper’s Ferry, WV, with a symbolic climb along the Appalachian Trail as the group moves from West Virginia into Loudoun. The grueling three-day hike involves carrying a military rucksack with gear weighing around 30 pounds. After an overnight Saturday hosted by the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company, the group moves along the W&OD trail to Ashburn.
Along with the physical challenge, the event includes an important story sharing component. Each participant marches in memory of a fallen service member, a colleague, friend, family member or simply someone whose life story has moved them. These Stories of Valor are shared at various points along the trail, and for the past four years, Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, located right off the W&OD trail, has been an important rest and storytelling stop.
After Old Ox opened in the summer of 2014, Jolly reached out to father and son owners Graham and Chris Burns, and the family was immediately on board. Around mile 38 on the trek, participants get a much-needed chance to rest in the brewery’s production area and are offered a beer, water or a sports drink with a meal provided by Ruck to Remember volunteers. It’s a chance for hikers to get off their feet and spend several hours sharing Stories of Valor.
“It really hits you in the gut. I was not prepared for how emotional it is the first time we did it … Sometimes relatives of the person who had fallen come just for the event,” Graham Burns said.
He added that members of the community are welcome to attend, and regular patrons have been moved by the experience for years.
“They feel themselves getting kind of drawn into it,” Burns said. “It really sparks people’s curiosity.
Participants complete their walk to the Iwo Jima War Memorial Sunday evening then get up early on Memorial Day morning for the moving final six miles to Arlington National Cemetery. For veterans, friends and family members who aren’t up for the 60-mile hike, the program allows supporters to jump in for the final six miles, from the Iwo Jima Memorial, past D.C. memorials to Arlington Cemetery, as a fundraiser for veterans’ groups.
While the event has its own cadre of volunteers who help with food and logistics, Jolly says support from Loudoun’s volunteer fire and rescue companies along the way is crucial. After traveling the Appalachian Trail from Harpers Ferry, the group makes an annual overnight stop at the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company on Saturday. That partnership was launched four years ago by company president and longtime volunteer firefighter Brad Quinn and then-town manager Rob Lohr, also a volunteer firefirefighter.
The annual event is especially meaningful for Quinn, whose son Michael, a Loudoun Valley High School and U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a Marine Corps captain and pilot, was killed in a helicopter crash while training for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
Last year, Quinn and his family were especially moved when a Marine sergeant from Michael’s squadron shared memories of him along the trek.
“The bottom line for me is these folks doing what they’re doing is typical of how the military, generally speaking, takes very good care of its families and the Marine Corps particularly. It’s a smaller service, and the aviation community within the Marine Corps is even smaller. … They all know each other,” Quinn said. “It was a heartwarming and heart-rending conversation that day. I’m delighted to do this, and the county’s been immensely cooperative and collaborative.”
The group also gets support from Leesburg and Ashburn businesses that meet them on the trail to provide drinks and perform basic medical checks. At first, the group caught some trail users by surprise and annoyed some Sunday afternoon cyclists, Jolly said. But now, many Loudouners have come to expect the group and cheer them on as the move along the trail. For Jolly, one incident sticks in his memory:
“We were coming in from western Loudoun on the W&OD and off in the distance we could see two bikers. We’re walking east and they’re going west. It’s a little boy on a little bike and his mom behind him. And the little boy stops his bike, gets off his bike, puts the kickstand up and he stands by his bike and renders a salute as we go by. … This little boy was a hallmark of influence and appreciation.”
For information about Ruck to Remember, go to rucktoremember.org. Stories of Valor at Old Ox is scheduled for Sunday, May 26 from 2 to 6 p.m. at Old Ox Brewery, 44652 Guilford Drive, Ashburn. Times are approximate and based on the group’s arrival time. The public is welcome. For details, go to oldoxbrewery.com.