Former Navy SEAL makes 1,700-mile journey to honor veterans
Maj. Doug Zembiec and his wife, Pam, attend the Marine Corps Ball in 2003. He was killed in 2007.
May 25th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Former Navy SEAL makes 1,700-mile journey to honor veterans

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.

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Filed under: Military • U.S.
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "5 - Words Succinct"

    Your off topic. Get lost!

    May 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • SSgt USMC

      And you can't spell...

      May 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Dr. Loomis

    Wow, how interesting, and completely relevant.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Phill LeClaire

    so many men and women around the world do so many wonderful things each day, THEY are truely amazing. Coleman, not only are you a warrior, YOU are a true American, a great man, and a BEST freind. Thank YOU for your commitment and service to our nation!

    May 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy©

    This is a sweet, heartwarming story, and a reminder of what our armmed forces give up to ensure that we remain the great United States of America.

    Thank a veteran today, and everyday.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cold Steel 6

    What a great idea, and extraordinary effort by Coleman Ruiz. Well done ! My family will always remember. Semper Fi.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ronvan

    One of the "elite" who continues to show his devotion to this country and his standands;.l

    May 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bellatrix

    Our military men and women, past and present, gone from us and still here, gave and continue to give so much in so many ways to protect us and keep the rogues from destroying the world. They do it whether you accept it or not. Whether you agree with it or not and they do it because they, and their superiors know that someone has to so we can live peacefully and securely each and every day.

    May 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jj

    Hi all. No politricks this morning. Hope everyone has a great memorial day weekend. I'm tryin to catch some dang fish at pleasant lake this morning and not going so well. Grrr. Oh well plenty of beer in the cooler! All be safe and remember what this holiday is about.

    May 26, 2012 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  9. David

    I want to thank every veterans of all wars you guys are in my thoughts and prayers

    May 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dave

    Thank you to my fellow Marines and other service members for there continued sacrifice.

    May 27, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Oh how lovely

    Oh gosh this story made me cry. So many have lost so much. Coleman sounds like a great friend. He must really miss his buddy. I once worked with kids with issues. On my last day after saying goodbye to one of the kids he told me he wouldn't miss me. I said why? That isn't a very nice thing to say. He answered by touching his heart and saying because you'll always be right here. And it's true. People we love are always with us.

    May 28, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John C Weaver

    From a brother to a former SEAL, all I can say is I will remember, and HOOYA!!

    May 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. john

    This is what America is and should always be about. Supporting each other no matter the issues are. We need to support people like this fallen comrade and his living friend who is carrying the banner onward. God bless you.

    May 29, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  14. Doc K

    I just read this story regarding Ruiz and "the walk"; forwarded to me from my Dad. I served briefly with Maj. Zembeic while he was at 2nd Force Recon circa '98/'99. Then Captain Zembeic, was a true "Jolly" Green Giant. A true leader of men; purely by example! ALWAYS had an "open door" with/for ANYONE at Co. From the head shed to the LCPL's; complete respect for him as a man and Marine. Hooyah Ruiz! "The only easy day was yesterday."

    June 1, 2012 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |