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Honoring the fallen: Blood, sweat and tears

After trekking 26.2 miles up a mountain and through a sand pit, members of the Fighting Saints Battalion, which included two 2011 River Falls High School graduates, raced to the finish line at Bataan Memorial Death March with a time of 5:48:07. <i>Submitted photos</i>1 / 2
Members of the Fighting Saints Battalion, from left: Nathan Illies, Joe Gresback, Isaac Witt, Jake Nelson, Jack Dingle, and Jake Oestreich, who competed in the "heavy" division of the 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March, stand behind the 35-pound "ruck" sack they carried throughout the race.2 / 2

Anyone knows that running a marathon is grueling, but imagine going up a mountain, through a sand pit in full Army combat gear, all while hauling a 35-pound "ruck" sack on your back.

That's exactly what two 2011 River Falls High School graduates did on March 17 in the White Sands Missile Range located in New Mexico during the Bataan Memorial Death March.

Isaac Witt, sophomore at St. John's University in Minnesota, described the race as "unbelievably difficult."

Although the team of five, which included fellow RFHS graduate Joe Gresback, son of Brian and Karen Gresback, and three other members of the Fighting Saints Battalion, trained prior to heading to New Mexico, they were not fully prepared for the 26.2 mile trek.

"I didn't realize how hard the course would be," said Witt, son of John and Chris Witt of River Falls. "I had been warned about the mountain and the sand pit, but I had no idea how far up the mountain we had to go and how the sand pit was over two miles of uphill walking through loose sand.

Gresback, an economics major, agreed, saying that it "was a very challenging course."

Witt went on to say that "the heat as well as the difference in altitude from where we have been training was a big factor too. We did all of our training here in Minnesota with the warmest time we did a ruck (a march with a rucksack on) at around 20 degrees and it was over 85 at the race. I faced some troubles with the heat."

Witt credited Gresback for getting him through the last six miles.

"I probably wouldn't have been able to finish without his help, so hats off to him for picking up the team," added Witt, who will be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army after graduation.

According to Witt, an economics major, the Bataan Memorial Death March is "a memorial for the horrific Battle of Bataan in the Pacific theatre during WWII where thousands of American and Filipino soldiers and Marines lost their lives."

Witt said that his team completed the marathon in 5:48:07 and took second place in the ROTC category and third for all Military Heavy teams finishing behind a Special Forces group from Fort Bragg and Colorado State University.

"I was happy with where our team finished, considering our experience and our training environment compared to what the actual course is like. The team we lost to was a very well trained and experienced team," said Gresback, who said the March 17 event was his first official marathon.

Summing up his experience Witt said: "It was definitely the most difficult thing I have done in my entire life, but it is pretty cool to say that you've run a a desert...up a mountain...through a sand Army Combat Uniform...oh yeah and with a 35-pound ruck on."

Gresback, who will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army after graduation, was grateful for the opportunity to meet the survivors of the Battle of Bataan.

"Being able to shake the hands with the survivors from Bataan helped to bring the full marathon into prospective and was an opportunity that not many more people will get to have due to the age of the remaining survivors," he said.

For more information about the Bataan Memorial Death March visit its website at

The complete article available in the April 11 edition of the Journal.

Jillian Dexheimer

Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.