Carrying an American Flag, a small gang of volunteers marched through Napa County on Wednesday, a big bus following behind them, promoting the true meaning of Memorial Day – honoring the sacrifices of U.S. military service members.
The volunteers, assembled by Texas-based nonprofit Carry The Load, started their journey in Seattle, Washington on April 26. By Wednesday, the walkers and cyclists had made their way into Napa County, stopping at the Napa County Fire Department, William Hill Estate Winery and former Safeway on Clay Street before heading to Petaluma, San Francisco and Southern California.
Each day, they “carried the load” by carrying on the memory of American heroes with them on their backs and in their hearts. On Wednesday, the name on their backpack read “’Napa Firefighters.”
They walked for retired combat veteran William Chad Mulder, 46, of Plainview, Texas, who died last summer; Officer David Sherrard, 37, of the Richardson Police Department in Richardson, Texas, who was killed while responding to a disturbance call; and Richard L. Garner, Jr., 29, of Madison, Wisconsin, a firefighter/paramedic who died April 1 after working a 48-hour shift.
Their photos were hanging on Carry The Load’s bus when Justin Salsano, 34, a firefighter/paramedic walking across the western U.S. with the group got on last week. Salsano worked with Garner back in Wisconsin. They were at different stations, but worked the same shift.
The recent loss has given his trip greater meaning.
“It’s not just military,” he said. “We carry a lot of firefighters that died.”
Garner was young and, although they weren’t necessarily friends, they saw one another a lot, Salsano said.
“(He wasn’t) someone I would call to go get beers with, but if I ran into him at the bar, I’d buy him a beer,” he said. Salsano didn’t know what caused Garner’s death, but knew it was considered to be while he was on duty because he had just gotten home from a 48-hour shift. It was Easter morning.
The repercussions of his loss are still unfolding back home, he said.
Walking six or more hours a day and living with seven other people on a bus isn’t the easiest thing, but Salsano doesn’t see it as a challenge.
“It’s more humbling, I think, than challenging,” he said. “I feel pretty bad about complaining about walking and being on an air-conditioned bus when you’re walking with people that have been over in Iraq, Afghanistan, (with) injuries, lost friends, lost family. It just seems kind of insignificant, ya know.”
During each leg of their 32-day West Coast journey, the Carry The Load team encounters different people who share their stories with them as well as their appreciation.
“You hear heartbreaking stories,” Victoria Hampton, 24, a student at University of North Texas and Carry The Load representative, said. “You can’t really say much, but you can be there for them.”
One such story was of the Miller Family. Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Miller, 27, and Sgt. Randi Miller, 24, husband and wife, were killed in their Parkland, Washington home by their friend, Ivette Gonzalez Davila, a former Army specialist, on March 2, 2008, according to The Seattle Times.
Davila then kidnapped the Miller’s 6-month-old daughter, Kassidy, and took her back to her barracks at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, according to the Times. Davila was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2010.
Kassidy, who the Times reported was being raised by family members, visited the Carry The Load team on Tuesday.
“They drove two hours to come out and walk with us” from Citrus Heights to Sacramento, Hampton said. That day, the Carry The Load team carried the memory of the Millers.
“What started in 2011 as an effort to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day has grown into a national movement to honor our heroes – and remember those who laid their lives down for our freedom,” Hampton said.
The team will be heading from Menlo Park to San Jose and Watsonville on Friday. From there, they will head down the coast, into the desert to Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, ending in Dallas, Texas on May 27 for Memorial Day weekend.
Carry The Load was founded in 2011 by two veteran Navy SEALs who wanted to remind people of the meaning of Memorial Day. Since then, Carry The Load has raised more than $17 million to increase awareness about what they call the real meaning Memorial Day as well as to support programs that help active and retired military members and their families. Law enforcement, fire fighters and rescue personnel also benefit from programs supported in part by Carry The Load.