To honor fallen friends, air commandos take a 'short' hike
TAMPA - Six days and 450 miles after leaving Hurlburt Field, John Hickman Jr. arrived at the U.S. Special Operations Command memorial and looked at the names of the fallen carved into black stone.
"I am overwhelmed," said Hickman, 38. "So far, I saw the names of seven of my friends."
Hickman was one of 16 air commandos who made the march from Hurlburt to honor five comrades killed in action this year and raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which takes care of the families of special operations forces who were killed, wounded or injured.
"I am tired," said Hickman. "But it doesn't matter. We have to live because these guys gave up their tomorrows. We have to take care of their families."
Marching in four teams of four, the commandos averaged about 4 miles an hour, with each team hiking 12 miles a day.
Posting pictures on their Facebook page along the way that showed the toll of the march -- nearly all the men had blisters on their feet -- the commandos arrived at the Bayshore Boulevard gate at MacDill Air Force Base at 1 p.m.
It was just as planned by Sgt. Deon McGowan, the commando who came up with the idea for the march.
McGowan lost friends in the crash of a Chinook helicopter in Wardak province, Afghanistan, in 2011. The crash took the lives of all 38 onboard, including 22 Navy SEALs and three Air Force combat controllers.
"I knew a couple of guys on the Chinook, and after it crashed I wanted to do something," McGowan said before hopping a flight. "I said, 'Hey, let's walk to Tampa and raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.' "
This year's march honored five Air Force commandos who died last year -- Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, Capt. Ryan P. Hall, Capt. Nicholas S. Whitlock, 1st Lt. Justin J. Wilkens and Senior Airman Julian S. Scholten.
"It's emotional," McGowan said, after the marchers arrived at the Socom memorial and went straight to the wall to see the names of friends.
But McGowan was also "elated."
"I am so proud of what this group accomplished," he said.
Last year, the march raised $25,000. This year, McGowan was hoping to raise twice that, and by the time the marchers arrived at MacDill, they were about 60 percent of the way there.
John Hickman Sr., 66, a former Marine lieutenant colonel who served in Vietnam, came to MacDill from his home in Spring Hill to surprise his son.
"These guys did an amazing job," said the elder Hickman, who, like his son, lost many friends in battle.
For more information, or to donate, go to www.firstgiving.com and search "air commando."