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VILSECK, Germany — They gathered in the dark outside unit headquarters well after midnight, their packs full, rifles empty and eyes tired.

Some slept, some read. Others talked among themselves. It was a final moment of rest before the beginning of a hard day for soldiers of Lightning Troop, 3rd Squadron. The unit was one of four troops that would march more than 18 miles across the German countryside in “full ruck,” or with their full combat gear, as a last hurrah before the squadron deploys to southern Afghanistan for the better part of a year.

Finishing exhausted and blistered some 10 hours later, soldiers said they got the message: When things get tough, the unit must hold together. And things could get a lot tougher downrange.

“It really separates who’s in it and who’s not, and who wants it and who doesn’t,” said Pfc. Jeremy Rendon. “Because anyone could just easily fall out and say, ‘I quit, I’m not doing that, this is crazy.’”

Few of the soldiers had rucked before at such distance, they said. They carried heavy loads, much of it dictated by the requirement of their jobs. A radio operator hefted more weight on his back; a machine gunner lugged more in his arms. Everyone carried a standard kit, with plate-carrier and helmet.

After convoying to a starting point south of the post, Lightning began its march north just after 3 a.m. Friday, when the sky was still dark and temperatures cooler. Glowing chemical lights strapped to each soldier’s pack gave a rough outline to the formation as it moved forward, separated by platoons.

They followed a small river north, pushing past farm fields and small towns, uphill and down. They marched on asphalt and dirt trails and varied their pace when the spacing between platoons changed.

One of the toughest hills came early in the march, forcing the lead platoon to slow its pace so others could catch up. The fog began to lift around 5 a.m., and the temperatures dropped just before dawn. The air warmed and daylight appeared before the troop arrived in the community of Hahnbach, where soldiers drew a few puzzled glances as they marched through downtown.

By 8:30, the day was hot and soldiers were feeling their legs. They rotated heavier equipment and lightened the loads of those who struggled. The troop made four planned stops throughout the march, receiving pretzels and fruit for snacks and filling up on water. Medics checked for blisters at the second stop.

The unit pressed on. The march was set at 18.36 miles, a figure symbolic of the founding year of the squadron’s parent unit, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Capt. Craig Nelson, Lightning’s commander, said the distance of the ruck was a throwback for the Army.

“I think people more senior to me, and from other units, they would tell you that when they were growing up it was common for them to do 18-milers, 25-milers,” he said. “For whatever reason I think we’ve gotten away from that here, but now we’re back.”

As they neared the finish, soldiers began to imagine an end to the march.

“I went to bed at 3 (p.m.) and woke up at 9,” said Cpl. Justin Valenta. “And then I’ve been up ever since. When I get back I’m going to sleep.”

The platoons were holding together, but their men were fatigued.

“People are just really tired,” Rendon, the private first class, said. “They’re hurting. They just want to get back.”

Soldiers donned their plate-carriers before the final leg of the march and entered the post in late morning, sticking to the sidewalk as they pushed to the troop headquarters. They made it by noon, dropping their packs onto the same ground they had gathered at in the early morning hours.

They had survived a difficult day, hot and sore, some of them badly blistered and hobbling. In a matter of weeks the unit will be operating in hot and volatile Kandahar. Nelson hopes they’ll stay as tough.

“Really, I think it’s an opportunity for these soldiers to realize they are physically capable of much more than we’ve asked of them in the past,” he said. “And I hope this gives them something to remember when it’s very hot and uncomfortable in Afghanistan.”

Correction Cpl. Justin Valenta's rank has been corrected.

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