When many Americans kick off the start of summer with burgers and beers for Memorial Day, one former Navy SEAL will be in the final stretch of a 1,700-mile, month-long cross-country journey.
Coleman Ruiz, executive director of Carry The Load, is just one of many veterans making the hike to drive attention and resources to organizations that help surviving military families. They hope it will remind communities of the true meaning of Memorial Day.
In 2011, Clint Bruce, former Navy SEAL, co-founded Carry The Load as a way to honor fallen service members and to remember surviving military families. In its second year, Carry The Load is taking a two-fold approach to fundraising.
Beginning in West Point, New York, communities were invited to participate in the 1,700-mile national relay, which was divided into 5-mile segments. On top of that, the national trek will conclude in Dallas with a nonstop 20-hour, 12-minute walk on Memorial Day.
"It's about putting one foot in front of the other," said Ruiz, who invites individuals from local communities to participate by walking as much or as little as they can. "Walk a mile or walk 50 miles. But just come out and do what every single family across the country who has lost an American service member does. All those families get up every day and put one foot in front of the other. It's the least we can do to show them that we care."
Ruiz knows personally the pain of losing a loved one. In 2007, one of his best friends, Maj. Doug Zembiec, was killed in Baghdad while leading a combat operation.
"There isn't another human being that I've met who can lead men the way Doug could," Ruiz said.
Known among his comrades as the "Lion of Fallujah", Zembiec was often the first to lead his company into and out of dangerous firefights. After completing a tour in Afghanistan in 2004, Zembiec volunteered and redeployed to Iraq in 2007.
Ruiz met Zembiec during a visit to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Zembiec, who attended the academy, hosted Ruiz for the weekend, giving him his first taste of the Navy and Marine Corps. Once Ruiz was accepted to the academy, the two quickly became friends. As teammates on the academy's wrestling squad, both men shared a love of the sport and a passion for the military. "He was a mentor and a brother to me," Ruiz said.
When Carry The Load passed through Washington, D.C., in mid-May, Zembiec's wife, Pam, welcomed Ruiz on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial along with volunteers from around the nation's capital to complete a small portion of the relay over to Arlington National Cemetery.
Pam Zembiec admits she doesn't visit her husband's grave at Arlington often, though she and her 6 year-old daughter, Fallyn, go there every year on his birthday.
"We always put balloons up in the air and sing happy birthday to him and I always explain to her, 'your Daddy did not choose to leave you, your Daddy left because he was a hero,'" she said.
Ruiz insists the relay isn't about those walking the 1,700-mile distance.
"We want the communities that we pass to get involved," he said. "It's the stories of all the surviving families across the country that are really important."
Money raised by the non-profit organization will benefit the Snowball Express, a charity for children of fallen military parents, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), along with several other local charities.
"Being a Marine, being a father, being a husband, he just gave his all," said Pam Zembiec, who wants her husband to be remembered this Memorial Day for his love of music and Army-Navy football games. "He was passionate about every single thing and we're just happy to have known him as long as we did."
To reiterate the meaning of Carry The Load, walkers are encouraged to bring a memento of their fallen service member, such as a flag, a photograph or a piece of clothing. Ruiz will complete the walk wearing Doug Zembiec's Teva shoes, insisting that they serve not only as a spiritual boost but as a physical one as well.
"I just love the thought of Doug watching me walk or run in them, going berserk and cheering us on," he said.