By Dominik Stallings
Tuscola residents, first responders and veterans got together at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, to participate in the “ruck march” in honor of veterans and first responders during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The event was organized by the 217 VETS, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting veterans through camaraderie and community.
217 VETS founder Gunnar Edwards lead the roughly three-mile long march. The crowd of people started at the new 217 VETS lounge in downtown Tuscola. Drake Todd, one of the 217 VETS board members, speculated that over 50 people participated in the march. Edwards said that they doubled or tripled the attendance from the last march in 2020. He said the event drew people from all across the area, including Champaign and Monticello. The group marched down Main Street, along U.S. 36, and circled back through South Prairie Street and North Central Avenue back to the 217 VETS lounge.
Drake Todd said, “I love it, I’m sweating already.”
Many of the attendees were retired veterans or first responders, but also regular families who wanted to come and support the cause. Some wore backpacks to emulate and remember the feeling of marching in the military. According to Armyfacts.com, in order to gain the Expert Infantryman Badge, military recruits must march for 12 miles with a total load of up 70 pounds.
“I enlisted Sept. 13, 2001. So it’s kind of an important day for me, as well as the rest of these guys. I’m very appreciative that we get to come out here every year, get the community involved and continue to remember that day,” said Aaron Pierce, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant.
One of the marchers, AJ Coady said, “The reason that we do this is to honor, but you also want to endure a little bit of the suck, get a small taste — small feel, of what those guys went through that day,”
“It’s a community event that brings a lot of people together that would otherwise not get together,” said Coady, “Everyone’s got a common interest.”
Along the route, several members in the community greeted the marchers and cheered them on. The march went alongside East Prairie Middle School. There, Sean Conner, VFW member, set up 285 flags representing Illinois soldiers who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11.
Amber Oberheim, one of the marchers said she was glad to see the event put on, but would like to see people be thankful for first responders on a daily basis. She said, “I think it’s something we need to do more often. I would challenge people to remember on Sept. 11, but remember every day, what our police, our fire and our correctional officers, remember what they do for us every day and the sacrifices they make.”
The marchers met back up at the 217 VETS lounge, where they enjoyed hamburgers and brats. Cory Wagle, 217 VETs co-founder, said the meat was donated by John Titus and the Moose Lodge. Marchers spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the lounge.
Edwards said that 217 VETs will be doing the ruck march event annually, and hope to grow in numbers each year that they do.
“People vow to never forget this day, and people have. If we can do our small part and remind these people and those young kids how important this day is. We’ll do this until the end of time I guess,” said Edwards.
Edwards added that they are planning a dinner for people who can’t celebrate the holidays with their families in November.