These Boots They Did Some Walking

November 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine


by Mac Johnston

Lieutenant (Navy) Killer Kowalski (right) and some members of his Maritime Forces Atlantic team march during the victory parade.

The loud, eerie sound at the foot of my bed pierced the damp air. Startled, I wondered what in the world was going on. Charge! Charge! Charge! the trumpet implored. Coming to my senses, I realized it was Reveille, even if it was only 03:00.

That was the scene in the main Canadian military tent on Tuesday, July 17, in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. It was time to rise and shine. After all, at 5:30 a.m. we had to start off on Day 1 of the Four Days Marches of Nijmegen. That’s typical of military life–to be sure everybody is ready on time, we had to hurry up and wait.

Four days of marching 40 kilometres a day with a rucksack weighing a minimum of 10 kilograms were in store for the 172 walkers in the 200-person Canadian Forces contingent. It began in the dark each morning to minimize the road time in the heat of the day.

The walk followed a different route each day and each route was named after a community, so Day 1 was the Day of Elst. The roads became a sea of marchers and local citizens turned out in a party mood.

Day 3 was the Day of Groesbeek and it was Canada’s day. The Canadian contingent stopped along the way and conducted a memorial service at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, the resting place of 2,332 Canadians, most of whom were killed while liberating Holland during World War II.

After completing the route on Day 4, the marchers shed their rucksacks and marched five more kilometres in the victory parade to downtown Nijmegen. Several hundred thousand spectators lined the route and a festive atmosphere prevailed.

Walking is gaining in popularity in Canada, largely because it improves one’s health, but the hobby is much more ingrained in Europe where tens of thousands of people participate in major marches. The Dutch society for physical education began the Nijmegen Marches for civilians in 1908, but the military have been involved for many decades and the Dutch Army sets up a temporary tented camp to house the international military teams. The Canadian military has been participating for nearly 50 years. The major differences between civilians and the military are that the military march in teams, carry loaded rucksacks and sing songs to keep their spirits up.

For this year’s 85th edition, 40,219 civilian and military marchers from more than 50 countries registered and 34,434 completed all four days. Some 35,299 civilians registered and 29,855 completed all four days, while 4,920 military from more than a dozen nations registered and 4,579 finished. Canada had a great record this year–171 of 172 walkers finished.

Canada’s contingent contained 13 walking teams: Chief of Maritime Staff/Naval Reserves, Halifax; Maritime Forces Atlantic, Halifax; Maritime Forces Pacific, Esquimalt, B.C.; 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta.; 9 Wing Gander, Nfld.; 12 Wing Shearwater, N.S.; 17 Wing Winnipeg; 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S.; Canadian Forces School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont.; Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System, CFB Borden; National Capital Region Sole Mates, Ottawa; NCR Assistant Deputy Minister (Information Management), Ottawa; Joint Signals Regiment, CFB Kingston, Ont. There was also a small group of independents, including Legionnaire Lawrence Hierlihy of Pembroke, Ont., Branch. In addition, Major-General Walt Holmes, commander of the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (Land), found the time to walk two days.

Master Warrant Officer Keith Jones, a repeater serving for the first time as contingent sergeant major, said: “The contingent itself was better prepared this year…. Last year the weather was perfect for marching, sunny and bright. This year we had a good first day, but then it rained day and night so it just added to a lot of the frustrations…. Day 1 was great, Day 2 you could see the weariness on their faces. Day 3 you see them limping and crawling around and Day 4 there were some serious medical issues that had to be dealt with, but the medical staff did an outstanding job getting everybody taped up.”

The contingent commander, Colonel Peter Holt, described the military’s reason for participating: “The three things we’re looking for here are leadership, stamina and teamwork. All three of those are very useful in any military endeavour, whether it’s army, navy or air force, and this is a great test of all three… This year it was the worst of weather, but if you want to look at the performance of the Canadian contingent, it was the best I’ve ever seen in my 13 years of doing this.”

Col. Holt also thanked Dominion Command for the Legion’s $5,000 contribution to the Canadian contingent: “I’m very pleased to have the support of the Legion.”

The annual award for the best Canadian military team is for the best teamwork, not the best time. That’s why it has the subtitle, Prix Esprit de Corps. The winner this year was Maritime Forces Atlantic, led by Lieutenant (Navy) Killer Kowalski, whose team exhibited a distinctly naval theme, complete with nautical lingo.

His team members come from different ships and shore units. The team obtained local sponsors and put up a Web site to record its progress. Overall, 33 personnel participated in various stages of training. “Together we did 13,490 km of training,” he said. “We burned 1.25 million calories. We lost 329 lb between us.” In the end, 12 people formed the team and another three marched with other teams.

Noting the camaraderie, Kowalski said: “It’s an extremely gruelling event…. And it’s just an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. It’s a great personal accomplishment.”

Team member Petty Officer 2nd Class Glenn Reid said: “We’re mostly a bunch of first-timers here. We’re going all out…. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in the military. It’s tremendous.” He talked about the tradition of marching into the beer tent at the end of each day for a liquid reward. “Entering the beer tent is invigorating. You can be dragging, but you’re walking proud and singing loud when you enter the beer tent.”

All the marchers are volunteers. The best preparation is walking. Each entrant had to do a minimum of 200 km of training, including a 40-km walk two days in a row. Most trained for at least 600 hours and many topped 800 hours. They do it for different reasons.

Returnee Leading Seaman Yvonne Menzies of the Ottawa ADM/IM team marched this year as a memorial to her grandfather, a WW II Dieppe Raid veteran. She said: “I think it’s just fantastic…. When you’re marching along and you see the people, the 50-plus generation predominantly but even the children, they really really enjoy seeing the Canadian Forces out there and it’s a real sense of pride in the uniform that you get from it…. It’s more than worth the training. It makes all the training seem trivial.”

Master Corporal Randy Boskovitch, 39, of Borden CFRETS, a longtime Legionnaire, said: “This has got to be the hardest thing I’ve done so far in the military. I thought jump course was bad, or combat leaders’ course, but this is the hardest–just the sheer pain, both legs and the feet. I’ve never had such problems with my feet.”

But the marching experience isn’t for everyone. One first-timer with foot problems who preferred anonymity said: “I’ll never volunteer again, that’s for sure. It’s a onetime thing.”

The reward for success is the Nijmegen Medal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have official status as a CF decoration. Lieutenant-Colonel Antoine Hauteclocque, deputy contingent commander, noted that many marchers feel the medal is significant–and a greater achievement than some things that are recognized. Maj.-Gen. Holmes expressed the view that the Nijmegen Medal is one medal that if a person is wearing it, you know they earned it. Perhaps that’s a sign that change may be in the offing.

One march weakness apparent to this observer was that the international messing system did not provide food in the quantity and quality customary for the CF and needed by the military marchers who burn up 3,500 to 4,000 calories each day. This may be partly an economic issue that the CF organizers will have to re-examine.

The Canadian marchers also weren’t helped by their old kit. Most wore the old leather combat boots which got soaked and swelled up, causing blistered feet. Only deployed troops had the new GoreTex boots at that point in the overdue Clothe the Soldier Program.

Dr. McLeod, comments on the health factor: “I think everybody did exceptionally well…. Everybody obviously had some significant blisters and some pain in their feet, but overall we proved that the training everybody did was important and preparation was the key.”

How prevalent were blisters? “Oh, I would probably say 80 to 90 per cent of the people had some form of blister on their foot,” Dr. McLeod said. “Most people treated them on their own, but I would say that we probably saw 30 per cent of them for treatment and that consisted mostly of just taping in places that they had a hard time getting to.”

The owner of the worst pair of blisters was the Legionnaire Lawrence Hierlihy, said Sergeant Todd McGowan, the medic who treated him every day. “The amazing thing is that they occurred on the first day. He powered through on tape, Motrin and Tylenol. That makes for a hard four days of Nijmegen.”

Hierlihy, 63, who received financial assistance from his branch and zone, said: “The first day was a little bit hard but other than that, no problems at all. The two big blisters on Day 1 were my own fault. I put on two pair of socks which I should not have done. There was friction in the grey sock and I had problems in the first hour. But the medical people are perfect. They did a super job. Everybody used me like a king. I’ve never been treated so good.”

Hierlihy did the march once before, in 1958 as a 20-year-old with 2 Canadian Guards stationed in Soest, Germany. “I always wanted to come back and do it and this was my free year. I trained quite heavy for it.” Was it worth all the effort? “Every inch of it,” he replied without hesitation.

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