Weighed down by 120-degree heat and 75 pounds strapped to his back, Army Staff Sgt. Juan Lugo marched on.
He prayed. He thought about his family back home. And as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier marched 13 miles around a sprawling U.S. military base in Baghdad on Memorial Day 2010, he remembered the people who had sacrificed their lives so he could wear the uniform.
“Those were the things that kept me going,” he said.
Although he’s back home now, Lugo, 43, continues the tradition today. For a second straight year, Lugo and his large family have organized a ruck march around Lacey to honor the nation’s fallen and raise money for service members wounded in the current conflict.
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It’s their way of reminding the community that a small percentage of the population has lost lives and limbs over the past decade to keep the nation safe.
Memorial Day, he said, “shouldn’t be something glorified or publicized as a half-day special at some of these retail stores.”
In Iraq, Lugo fixed things. He used tools to repair the construction equipment used by the combat engineers of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Lewis-McChord.
That wasn’t the only way he fixed. An ordained minister, Lugo used his Bible — he calls it “his technical manual” — to ease the stress and reassure the engineers before they headed off the base on a mission.
Up to six times a day, he said he was called upon to lead a prayer and read scripture. He would write Bible passages and inspirational quotes on the dry board outside the motor pool.
Leading up to that Memorial Day two years ago, Lugo had a calling to do more. He raised the idea of a march to some men in his unit. They were tired and raised concerns about the heat.
So Lugo, who has served three tours in Iraq, went solo. He attached the American and POW/MIA flags to his pack, grabbed his helmet and rifle, and headed out.
“He’s very spontaneous,” said his wife, Toni.
When he passed one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, Lugo recalled, a vehicle carrying a three-star general pulled up. Soldiers typically stop what they’re doing and salute. But this time the window lowered and it was the general saluting him.
It was Toni Lugo who broached the idea of turning the march into something bigger. Her husband liked the idea and mentioned Veterans Day would be a good holiday for it.
He returned from Iraq in the summer of 2010. The topic wasn’t discussed again until two weeks before last year’s Memorial Day, when he said that the holiday made sense.
Although heavy with their seventh child, Toni Lugo sprang to action because she agreed more attention must be paid to the sacrifices of service members.
“We’re seeing people working hard from the heart and not getting recognized,” she said. She and one of her daughters designed the flyer. She sent emails to spread the word about the march, and their children posted and distributed the flyers.
The family solicited the help of the Rotary Club of Hawks Prairie to get the event off the ground, including securing city approval and police support. The club is also the driving force behind a military family support march that will celebrate its 10th anniversary in September.
“It’s very touching to see this amount of soldiers on a Monday morning all in uniforms with 40- to 60-pound packs on during their day off,” said Andrew Oczkewicz, the club’s past president.
One hundred service members showed up to march, double what the Lugo family expected.
Halfway through the march, Lugo learned his wife’s water broke. She told him to stay and finish the march. Their newest addition, Ad’an, arrived four days later.
The march raised $800 to benefit the Warrior Transition Battalion at Lewis-McChord, where ill and injured soldiers are assigned until they can return to duty or are medically discharged from the Army.
Lugo said he was moved when Lacey residents came out and shook the hands of the marchers.
“They did it all, and it paid off,” Juan Lugo said of his family’s efforts. They hope to draw 150 service members to today’s march.
The event at home has taken on added significance for Lugo since he became the noncommissioned officer in charge of the rear detachment of his unit, the 22nd Engineer Clearance Company.
The company is deployed to Afghanistan and is scheduled to return home this summer. Four soldiers have been injured, and one of Lugo’s responsibilities is to meet them when they arrive at Madigan Army Medical Center. He helps provide assistance for the soldiers or their family members.
Lugo said he wished he was with his unit in Afghanistan and will draw inspiration from its soldiers when he sets off for a third time today.
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