Eric Frei’s childhood dream was to join the Marine Corps. “I used to dress up in the fatigues and everything and practice my marching,” he said. But when we tried to join up as an adult, he failed to score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, known as ASVAB. That didn’t stop him. He sought and was eventually granted a waiver. When he reported to training at Parris Island, S.C., he got his chance to become one of “the few and the proud.” Unfortunately, it was not to be. After only a week, he was dropped for medical reasons and sent home to Saddle River, N.J. Now 33, he is studying aircraft and power plant mechanics at the Teterboro School of Aeronautics.
But that hasn’t dampened his fervor for the military life. On Saturday, Frei was one of about 100 participants marching eight miles through lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn in the Veteran’s Day Honor Ruck. Ruck, short for “rucksack,” is an Army term for marching with weight, either carried in a pack or carried by hand. The group, which included veterans, fitness enthusiasts, families and special guests, visited war memorials along their route.
Hosted by the military-grade travel gear company GORUCK, this event was one of more than 20 that the company hosted around the country in honor of Veteran’s Day. These rucks are similar to popular mud runs and obstacle course runs designed to simulate military training.
“I am out here to be with the veterans, to help support the veterans, and to march with them,” Frei said, “to be a part of a team that I never got to really be a part of in any official sense.” He wore a GORUCK pack with a 20-pound weight plate. A patch on his pack had a picture of an apple with an arrow shooting through it, and the letters B.A.A.R., which stands for Big Apple Area Ruckers, a local team of over 300 people, of which Frei is a member.
A ruck without a weight is just a walk so the ruckers hike with steel plates in their packs, the same weights found in a gym. To make the ruck a team effort, there are also duffle bags full of weights. Weighing 20 to 80 pounds, the duffle bags are passed from one person to the next. They carry these duffle bags in addition to their rucks. When one person gets tired, they call for the next and a new participant takes the weight. The 80-pound bag is so long that it requires two people to carry it. With the heavy bag draped across both of their shoulders, the ruckers have to get close and match steps. When they get tired, they call for the next two and pass it on.
Frei took a bag weighing around 50 pounds and carried it most of the way. With the weight of the duffle bag added to the weight of his ruck, Frei carried 70 pounds for most of the eight miles. Confirming that it was indeed heavy, Frei said, “It’s a good pain. It’s the kind that makes the weakness go away.”
From behind him, another participant said that watching Frei made his back hurt. “I’m not carrying that thing,” said Army Capt. Florent Groberg. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2015 for his service in Afghanistan, where he tackled a suicide bomber, Groberg was in New York City to serve as the Grand Marshall of the city’s Veteran’s Day parade on Sunday. He retired from the Army because of injuries he sustained when the suicide bomber detonated his device. Groberg said of the event, “It’s a pretty cool opportunity to go out there and ruck with individuals who have served our country. We’re going to get to see some really important monuments and just appreciate each other’s company.”
Frei carried his ruck and the weight bag for most of the three-hour ruck as the group crossed into Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge and then crossed back into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge. The group stopped to take pictures and the ruckers had a chance to put down their weights at memorials to World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The ruck ended at the World Trade Center Memorial pools with a closing ceremony. An Army band played each branch’s song and Groberg spoke about his service and what Veteran’s Day means to him. Emphasizing roots as an immigrant from France who didn’t speak English until he was 12 years old, he reminded the participants, as well as the tourists who had gathered to listen, that communities are stronger when they look past their differences to work towards a common goal.
“I loved it,” Frei said after the ruck ended. “It was everything I thought it would be. It was exercise, and I got a real genuine sense of unity. Everyone came out here for their own reasons together.”
Frei said that he was struck by the memorials that the group passed along the way. “It’s one thing to stop at each memorial and take it all in, but then you go to the next one and each one just builds on each other and you realize how much others have sacrificed.”
Frei described rucking as something far more than just some fitness trend. “It’s never about one individual. When you carry that weight, it’s always about something else. That weight is a burden of whatever problems you have in life, or someone else’s burdens. When a bunch of people (ruck) together, that’s just more energy.”
As a reward for finishing the Honor Ruck, Frei got a special patch and a free ticket to the World Trade Center Memorial.
Header image: Participants cross the Brooklyn Bridge during the Vet’s Day Honor Ruck (The Ink / Sara Ohlms)