JPOs, Law Enforcement Participate in Historical March


by Jackie Schlotfeldt

It's been 68 years since thousands of American soldiers and Filipinos were forced to march for days without food or water in the searing heat of the Philippine jungle, after they surrendered to the Japanese during World War II.

The 61-mile march, along with random beatings, horrific killings and disease caused the death of nearly 20,000 of the estimated 75,000 prisoners of war.

In 1989, the Army ROTC Department of New Mexico State University decided to sponsor a memorial Bataan Death March. Today, more than 21 years since the march began; participation in the memorial event has grown from 100 to nearly 6,000.

"Team New Mexico Justice," a group comprised of five men — all representing law enforcement, decided to join forces and make the 26.2-mile march in honor of those that lost their lives and those that survived. Three of the five members of the team reside in Socorro County — Juvenile Probation Officer Hilario "Larry" Bernal, Adult Probation Parole Officer Zachary Gerleve and Socorro County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Shorty Vaiza. Other members of "Team NM Justice" are Cesar Polanco, Federal Probation Officer Supervisor out of Las Cruces, and Daniel Henry, a Juvenile Probation Officer also from Las Cruces.

This is the eighth time Bernal, 52, has participated in the memorial march. And since he still considers himself new to the area, having lived in Socorro for a year, he decided to form a team for this year's march.

"I saw there was an opportunity to do it as a team," Bernal said in a March 26 phone interview. "When you go the first time, (to the march) one thing you hear about through those that went through it is if they (Bataan Survivors) hadn't worked together as a team they may not have survived."

Bernal said when he contacted Vaiza about joining the team; there was no hesitation on his part.

"I said 'that sounds great — sign me up,'" Vaiza said smiling.

Vaiza, 61, said this is the first time he's made the march, although he has run in different marathons over the years and had run track in high school. He also coached track at the middle school for 20 years.

"I didn't pick the Bataan Death March," Shorty said. "It picked me."

For Gerleve, 24, this was also his first time participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March and he said he would encourage anyone to do it.

"The whole thing was inspiring," Gerleve said in a March 25 phone interview.

The Bataan Memorial Death March, located at White Sands Missile Range, has two routes people can choose from. The first is a 26.2-mile march, while the other is shorter at 15.2 miles. With water and fruit stations set up approximately every 2 miles, those who are marching can take a break if they need to.

Vaiza described the course as a combination of up-and-down trails that ranged in elevation, as well as rocky and sandy arroyos but very little paved road.

"It was unbelievable — the terrain. That sand felt good after the 18th mile," Vaiza said. "If we were pounding the pavement it would have hurt a lot more."

Although Vaiza trained before the event, Gerleve said he didn't.

"I just did it," Gerleve said. "It was hard, but a good experience."

What was amazing to see during the memorial event was the number of "wounded warriors" making the march the team said. There were many veteran soldiers, some who had lost one or both legs that participated in and completed the course wearing prosthesis.

"Sixteen miles into it there was this guy walking up the mountain with two canes and two prosthesis," Gerleve recalls. "They don't want you to feel sorry for them — they want you to treat them like normal. They can and they did do it."

The wounded warriors are the first to start the memorial march after the opening ceremony.

"It's unbelievable what they endured," Vaiza said emotionally. "To see these young men with no legs — some with ski poles to help them along. It makes you proud."

Bernal said after you hear the history behind what the veterans went through during the spring of 1942, you realize that working together is the ultimate teamwork.

"You hear a lot of yelling," Bernal said of the memorial march and the teams participating. "People are saying 'come on, you can do it.'"

Although many civilians participate in the march, Bernal said you see a lot of military men and women, many who enter the heavy category of the march, which involves carrying a rucksack with 35 or more extra pounds of weight.

Bernal said he carried an extra 92 pounds in his rucksack when he participated in the event in 2005.

Team New Mexico Justice finished the march in seven hours, 23 minutes, 38 seconds.

"We started as a team and we finished as a team," the trio said.

Although there were sore muscles, blisters and bruised toenails from the 26-mile journey, all three agreed that they will do the march again.

"It was very inspirational," Vaiza said. "The people — they were awesome. Even if you don't run, just be there for the soldiers."

Gerleve said for him the whole thing was inspiring, from the opening ceremony with the jets flying overhead to the wounded warriors and survivors at the starting line.

"It's something I will definitely remember forever," Gerleve said. "When you are done, you know you've done something."

"For them," Bernal said, "that's what we're here for. Those that made it and those that didn't make it. You see the survivors with all these medals on their chest. That's a walking hero right there."