Clint Bruce grew up in Arkansas and Texas and played football for the U.S. Naval Academy and the NFL before serving as a Navy SEAL before and during the Gulf War.
“I just love this nation, and serving this nation. Not who we are at any given time, but who we consistently say we want to be,” Bruce said.
Still, it hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always felt like America loves its service members back.
“As I served and after I got out, as I continued to lose friends, I saw this apathy toward Memorial Day,” Bruce said. “It had become a very meaningful day for me, as a man who had lost friends in the service.”
Bruce is quick to admit that he “didn’t do Memorial Day well,” until he lost friends.
“As I was dealing with the loss of friends, I was very frustrated to see that it didn’t seem like anybody really cared, and we were still losing guys and gals overseas,” Bruce said. “My friend thought America was worth dying for, and he didn’t know them. If the people he died for didn’t miss him even on the one day they’re supposed to really miss him, that makes his death make less sense to me.”
At yet another Memorial Day backyard barbeque, surrounded by family and friends and the ghosts of the fallen, Bruce realized things had changed for him. His heart was not in the welcome-to-summer festivity. His wife pulled him aside, and said, “I miss them, too. I loved them, too. And I know you don’t like this, but I have never seen you upset about something, and not do something about it.”
As far as Bruce could tell, “Memorial Day had become a three-day mattress sale.” It was wrong. It was harsh. So he turned to his training.
“I started the classic military movement of the road march. That’s what I knew how to do,” Bruce said. He walked around a lake in downtown Dallas, “and with every mile and every step that started to hurt, I felt better. I don’t like to suffer; that’s not the point. But the relationships we had were forged in the bonds of suffering, in boot camp and combat, and the suffering brings back the memories.”
Two hours into his walk, he saw a World War II veteran, “ramrod straight,” watching him. Bruce walked to the older man, thinking to thank him for his service decades before, and the man asked a question.
“Son, who are you carrying?”
That question was the beginning of Bruce’s healing, and of a new movement.
“It kind of took my breath away. He said everything that I was feeling, and I shared a name with him and went home and took my backpack off, and my bride said, ‘You’re lighter. You walked it off.’,” Bruce remembered.
He shared the story with civilians, and realized that although Memorial Day has become known more for lighthearted gatherings and commerce, everyday Americans wanted to honor those who have given their lives for our country, just as he did.
“That meant so much to me. It wasn’t apathy about Memorial Day. It was uncertainty. They wanted to do Memorial Day well, but they didn’t know how to,” Bruce said.
For Memorial Day 2011, Bruce gathered 500 people in Dallas, each to walk at least 20 hours plus 11 minutes more, for 2011. Each year, his group grows, and adds another minute to the walk. This year, his nonprofit, Carry the Load, will encourage people to “carry more than you have to, further than you think you could,” on a road march from West Point to Dallas, to raise money for Memorial Day programs and other nonprofits that serve to honor the fallen, nationwide. The organization has expanded its focus to honor firefighters, rescue personnel and law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, as well.
“It would have been impossible for me to be brave overseas if I didn’t know men and women would be brave for my family at home, and we don’t honor them. It’s shameful. We established Memorial Day to remember well, and to work hard to honor the sacrifices of the people who serve this nation,” Bruce said.
Not everyone walks the entire distance, but families and friends gather along the way to walk for five miles in memory of a loved one who sacrificed life for country.
“Everyone has a different version of the story. For me, it is about anger and reconciliation toward this nation that I served,” said Bruce. “They just lost their husband, or Daddy, or son. I’m not angry anymore.”
Last year, more than 25,000 people joined the walk, all because, as Bruce sees it, “we’re smart enough to ask the right people the right question: ‘Do you want to remember them well and make Memorial Day matter again?’ I have yet to find an American who doesn’t want to do that. When they say ‘yes,’ as great Americans always will, we tell them this is how we’re doing it.”
Carry the Load reaches out to nonprofit and corporate partners, always asking for participation more than money.
“Money is important, but we want you to get out on the street and walk, and answer who you’re carrying, or listen to the story of someone who is there in memory of someone else,” Bruce said. “It’s neat and fun to see how connected we all are. We don’t have to look far to see a father or a grandfather or an uncle who served or even fell.”
This year’s National Relay will begin April 29 in West Point, and end with its 20 hour and 14 minutes Memorial March, May 25-26 in Dallas. Carry the Load will walk May 4 and 5 through the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. To learn about the planned route, and to participate, visit www.carrytheload.org.