The Bataan Memorial Death March is more than a walk through the high desert. For some, like me, it's a spiritual trek. When you allow it, it can be a healing ointment for the soul. It’s a trek I’ve made for many years, and I look forward to sharing it with others. Then 2020. POOF! It’s gone. The sand therapy we all relied on was gone for three consecutive years.
I’ve held off writing my thoughts about this year’s event. I wasn’t even sure if I would ever put them on paper. Why? I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I didn’t want to give people a reason to judge me. And, I selfishly wanted to savor every memory and keep them tucked away just for me. But, most importantly, I didn’t want the day or our retreat to be about me. I wanted our team members to have time to reflect, tell their stories, and share their experiences. Their healing trumps everything else.
So why share my experience now? I’m writing this hoping that someone who might be struggling reads it and is inspired to find a healthy outlet. I pray they find peace amid their storms.
BY THE NUMBERS
1 = The number of Bataan Survivors that are left and in attendance at Bataan.
3 = Number of years since we last got to Ruck Bataan.
30 = The number of pounds I’ve put on since COVID.
2 = The number of bulging discs in my back.
3 = The number of months I was in recovery from surgery
23 = The number of people I’ve loved and cared about that I lost since Jan 2020.
1,000,000 = of pieces my heart has been in since losing my father.
26.2 = The number of miles we marched
10+ = The number of hours it took to complete the march
19 = The number of sponsored marchers on our team.
900+ = The number of Fallen Hero Memorial Bibs we gave out during the expo.
Beyond numbers and quantification = My tremendous sense of gratitude.
After a three-year hiatus due to COVID concerns, the Bataan Memorial Death March was back on! Memories of Honor pulled together a team of nineteen for the 2023 March. Our team comprised of Gold Star Family members, Veterans, and our Leadership Team. About half of this year’s team had never done Bataan before. This year we were super excited to welcome back Terry & Beth Burgess, Gold Star Parents of SSG Bryan Burgess. We also welcomed into the Memories of Honor family Bryan's widow, Tiffany, and their two children, Zander and Makya. The Burgess family did the 14-miler together, and Zander wore his father's boots and uniform during the ruck. (A full team list and photos can be viewed at the end of this post).
Memories of Honor had a booth at the packet pickup expo on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We sold shirts and merch for donations and handed out Fallen Hero Memorial bibs so marchers could wear the names of the fallen on their rucks. Our team members took turns working the booth while others ran shuttles picking up team members from the airport.
We intentionally house everyone in as few homes as possible to create a sense of family and community. I was excited for everyone to experience the weekend, to honor, heal, and connect in a safe environment of understanding people. Our COO, Dr. Traci Uribe, prepared the team a delicious home-cooked carb-up dinner on Saturday night. We laughed, shared stories, and had a team meeting at dinner before everyone headed off to bed.
Traci and I hadn’t been at the house much all week because we were at the expo for ten hours each day. We hadn’t even pulled out our clothes or gear for the morning. So, while the house slept, Traci and I were up until midnight packing our rucks and trying to decide what we would wear to keep warm in the morning.
With only two and a half hours of sleep, we were up at 02:30. Everyone loaded up, and we were wheels up at 03:30. We were on base by 04:30. It was COLD! We sat in the van with the heat running until time to make our way to the staging area. Everyone was layered up, trying to stay warm. Some had hand and body warmers placed throughout their bodies. We took our annual team photo, said a prayer, and a little after 06:30, we were off. My prayer for each of us was to stay healthy. Take from the experience what we needed, leaving behind what no longer served us—and burring it in the trail’s dust.
I imagine Bataan has a different meaning for different people. The best way I can explain what Bataan is for me – it’s like peeling back layers of an onion until you reach its core. It’s majestic, inspiring, and healing. It can lift the world's weight off your shoulders if you allow it. It gives you time to reflect, dig deep, compartmentalize, and work out whatever is working you over.
To fully understand what Bataan did for me this year, I need to give a little backstory. So here are my scars; judge me if you will.
This year's march was the medication my heart and soul desperately needed. When shit gets real, I tend to go inside myself. I build walls to keep myself strong. And I prefer to suffer in silence. Since the end of 2019, I have built an impenetrable fortress.
In the fall of 2019, my dad got very ill, was hospitalized, and underwent a horrific surgery with only a 50/50 survival rate. Even though he survived the surgery, he never fully recovered from it. My father wasn’t bouncing back from this, and I knew it. I started building my protective walls.
My mother and father came to live with me in January 2020. I slowly watched the man who was always larger than life, untouchable, unbreakable, slowly fade away until nothing was left. As my father’s health declined, so did my mental health. I retreated further into myself. I had to deal with my “STUFF” in my way, on my terms.
After my dad’s passing, I went dark. My depression hit an all-time high. And I was learning how to live with PTSD. I didn’t understand the full extent of PTSD until then: smells, sounds, and words all caused vivid flashbacks. Bedtime caused me crippling anxiety. My chest would tighten to the point where I couldn’t breathe. Which lead to panic attacks. I quickly learned to loathe the silence of the night–that’s when flashbacks were the most vivid. The trauma I experienced in those last 48 hours of my father’s life played out as if it was happening all over again, and I couldn’t make it stop.
In 2020 alone, I lost twenty friends and family members to various causes – none of which were COVID related. It felt like life was taking away everyone I cared about. And I was over it. My father’s death was the tipping point. I stopped working, taking phone calls, and returning text messages. Nothing mattered. I was just existing.
I’m not too proud to say and share that I hit rock bottom. I didn’t care if I lived or died. I was numb. I was a prisoner of my mind and my home. I wouldn’t leave my house for days or weeks at a time. I wouldn’t even set foot outside. I was happy to fade into a bottle of booze and never return. Over time, I slowly got a little better. But, It wasn’t until we moved out of our house into our new home that my depression subsided. I no longer felt like a prisoner in my own home. However, I never fully returned to my old self. Inactivity became my new normal.
I knew the march would be emotional for me. I just didn’t know how much. In 2018 and 2019, my father was supposed to do Bataan with us, but he decided he wasn’t physically up to it – but he still went with us to support my mother as she did the honorary. I had planned on rucking wearing my father’s ashes around my neck this year, but I had forgotten them at home. I felt like I had let him down by not bringing them along.
The sunrise at White Sands Missile Range is stunning. It is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The way it reflects off of the Organ Mountain range will put a tear in your eyes. It’s like seeing heaven opening up to let us know God is alive and those we love are not gone. I felt safe and loved.
At 06:00, the team met at a designated spot early that morning for a team photo and prayer. A little after 06:30, we were off! The course traffic is tightly packed at this point up until about mile eight. But no one seemed to care, and everyone was smiling and excited.
We hadn’t reached mile marker two yet when Gold Star dad Brian White (AKA Sgt Carter) noticed a young soldier carrying the name of his son, PFC Logan White, on his pack. This was the first “God Wink” to tell us we are not alone. It was heartwarming to see Brian and this young man hug and share a moment. We would leapfrog the course with this young soldier (and Logan) all day.
As we made our way to mile three, we could hear the sounds of the “Cowbell guy” off in the distance. “YES! He’s back!” Cowbell Guy, as he’s known, is a staple on the Bataan course. I love watching people taking photos and dancing with him as he strikes the bell in time to classic rock. His famous “Doubters can suck it” sign is in his car's trunk. All is right in the world once again.
As we marched on – I started losing feeling in my right arm due to the pinched nerve in my neck. We weren’t even at mile three marker yet, and I felt like it was mile twenty-three. I started to panic and wonder if I would be physically able to finish this year. As the miles passed, I was slow and out of breath. My lumbar disc started hurting, so out came the trekking poles. I adjusted my pack, which helped elevate the numbness in my arm. I kept sinking further behind our group. I kept telling them to go on without me, that I would finish by myself. I didn’t want to slow them down. This became a repeated conversation, and I wouldn’t win because they refused to leave me behind. Even though I felt guilty hijacking their day, I greatly appreciated and loved them for their concern.
As the miles kicked in, our team splintered into groups as marchers put in their miles at their pace. Everyone stayed in contact by checking in every few miles with WhatsApp. Those in my group were cheering on those ahead of us, kicking up sand as they made the trail miles look like road miles. As my group reached the mile marker right before the marathon split, I noticed that Brian had stopped and was crying. That’s when the other Gold Star Parents embraced him and each other. They shared a quiet tearful moment that only someone in their position would understand. Layers of the onion peeled away.
In our group were Gold Star Dads Brian White and Tony Ruiz. Gold Star Moms Lisa Anderson and Gina Ruiz. And me and Traci. Our group stopped a few times throughout the 26.2 miles to use the restroom, take care of our feet and grab something to eat. We had many laughs along the way. Then there was me cursing what I call the HILL OF HELL because it’s paved and never-ending. That hill was playing hell with my back, and I didn’t like it. More than once, I had to apologize to those around us for dropping F-bombs.
Finally, off the pavement. My heart felt lighter when we hit the sandy trail and went higher into the elevation. I kept looking around me in awe of how beautiful this place was and how much I missed it. It’s been a long time since I felt gratitude that strongly.
At about mile thirteen, I could see the Organ Mountain Range as I rounded a bend. It was so beautiful I couldn’t help it; I broke down and started crying. I could feel my dad with me. Tears of love and gratitude streamed down my cheek. I all but forgot about my back and my mental anguish. I was just thankful to be alive and able to share this experience with not only those on our team but everyone on the course. I wondered if my dad had ever walked or driven these trails while stationed at White Sands. Even though I was sad that my dad never got to experience this march for himself, I knew he saw it through my eyes. And I could feel him with me. His presence was overwhelming. It felt like a warm internal hug saying, “I’m here, I’ve always been here, and you will be okay.” I cried a few times along the way, allowing the onion layers and armor to fall to the sand with every step.
By mile twenty, my old nemesis, the back pain, was back. I could feel myself starting to slow again. But I kept trying to keep up with our group. By the end of the sand pit, I was hurting badly. I was hitting a wall and about to bonk. I needed food! I pulled food out of my pack, drank pickle juice, and felt slightly better. At some point around mile twenty-three, my best friend and ride-or-die looked at me and said something that sparked a fire within me! Although what she said will remain between her and me – it was like she took my transmission out of neutral and shifted it into fifth gear.
The pilot light was lit, and it was game on!
I put on my headphones, looked down, and quickened my pace. That’s also when the David Goggins-inspired self-talk kicked in, “I’m Amy M-F’ing Cotta! I eat the suck for breakfast! I am my father’s daughter. I live and thrive on adversity.” The pace quickened. Layers peeled away.
The more I remembered who I was, the quicker my pace became. I had an out-of-body experience. I knew I was in pain, but I couldn’t feel it. I focused on my mind on my mantra, “strong mind, strong body.” I must have repeated that at least a hundred times. Here come the tears; I was back!
Over that last three-mile stretch, Armor dropped with every step. My goal at this point was to finish as quickly as possible. The quicker the pace, the faster I can slip off my boots and drink a cold beer. Our amazing team member Tony Ruiz paced me. I’d speed up, and he’d match my pace. I’d slow down, and so would he. We never spoke a word. Tony didn’t know it, but he was helping me to heal my unseen wounds. Even though Tony and I are around the same age, having him at my side was like having my dad walking beside me. I can’t thank Tony enough for caring enough to stay with me. Had he not walked with me, who knows what would have happened?
I’m not sure when, but at some point, Lisa got a burst of energy and was ahead of us. Once we hit the 26-mile marker, Tony and I stopped. He said to me that we needed to let the others catch up. “What??!! Aren’t they behind us?” I felt terrible! I didn’t realize we had dropped anyone. I thought they were all right behind us, happy I was no longer at a snail's pace. Traci and Gina had stayed back with Brian, who was having a painful challenge with his neck. As they jogged up, we all set out to finish the way we started – together.
As we entered the finishing chute, I was a lifetime lighter than I was when I started. If not for these people, I would have never finished. They didn’t have to stick with me, but they did. I will forever be grateful.
Sometimes in life, we have to break ourselves down to build ourselves back up. Bataan 2023 was just that for me. A rebuilding phase. It brought a wrecking ball to my remaining stone walls. I am forever changed. Goodbye, couch potato! Amy Cotta, the Boot Runner, is back! As I write this, I’m breaking-in new boots and training for my next half-marathon ruck march in the Smoky Mountains. I’m also looking for other challenging courses and events to train for and attack with a vengeance. This is the way my dad would want it. I will no longer mourn his passing but REALLY LIVE my life for him.
In loving memory of
Duel E. Stanfill 10/19/38 - 8/24/2020
Husband, Father, Grandfather, Army Spc. Veteran, Aircraft Engineer, MacGyver.
In tribute to the battling bastards of Bataan. May we never forget.
2023 Memories of Honor Bataan Team
Brian White = Army Veteran, Gold Star Father & Leadership Team Member
Charlie Phillips = Army Veteran & Leadership Team Member
Gabriel Kanawite = Army Veteran & Surviving family member
Guadalupe Hernandez = USMC Veteran
J. Tony Ruiz = Gold Star Father
Gina Ruiz = Gold Star Mother
Jason Ashcraft = USMC Veteran
Jason Smith = USMC Veteran
Lisa Anderson = Gold Star Mom
Phil cook = Army Vetera
Sally Pappas = USMC Veteran Spouse & Leadership Team Member
Sherwin Cruz = Army Veteran
Terry Burgess = Gold Star Father
Elisabeth Burgess = Gold Star Mother
Tiffany Burgess = Gold Star Spouse
Makya Burgess = Gold Star Daughter
Zander Burgess = Gold Star Son
Traci Uribe = Veteran Spouse, MOH COO
Amy Cotta = Blue Star Mom, MOH Founder