Zimmerman Challenge Weekend
Written on April 22, 2014
On April, 18th I had the honor of being the caretaker of James Zimmerman’s stone at The Zimmerman Fitness Challenge held at the University of Maine in Orono. Over the long weekend I had a compelling journey with it: not just a physical outing, but a deeply profound and thought-provoking experience.
The night before the ZFC I traveled to Augusta to meet up with two members of my TSP family, Ted Coffin and Andrew Coleman, and even though I hadn’t seen them in a few months I was welcomed right back with open arms. I said my goodbyes and then received the stones of James, Brandon Silk, Christopher Gelineau, and John Brainard for our team and started my travels back home to prepare for the morning. As the miles passed by, with the stones in my passenger seat, I felt a tremendous emotional connection, that I could not withstand. I had only made it to Newport when I had to pull over and look at them.The first stone I held in my hands was James’. A mere rock that had been overlooked for years, now is a symbol of solidarity for the family that lost a precious part of their lives and I found myself blankly staring at James’ for 20 minutes. The stories I had heard of James all came flooding back to me while I was sitting at the rest stop. It was quite overwhelming and I started to doubt my abilities to carry it the next day. From every source I researched about James I learned he was an excellent leader his men looked up to, that he pushed them hard, and was always there for them when the times got tough. I decided that I would let James push me and his memories guide me through the day and the ZFC. I had never met James, but I could put a voice to his picture in my mind. On the day of the ZFC, I met up with our team, Tony Llerena, Spencer Smoot, and Tom Hayden, and handed out the stones we would be carrying all day while meeting them, essentially, for the first time ever.
We did the ZFC a little differently than the other teams as we carried weighted rucks the entire time throughout all the evolutions and movements. What we were doing was in the memory of a soldier that hadn’t come home and for a family that would trade anything for one more day with them. It wasn’t ever about our ego, pride, or to say “look what I did”. Time did not matter; only the team mattered. Before the start of the ZFC, I met up with Tom and Jane Zimmerman and introduced myself. They are truly amazing people. They encouraged us all and participated in the Challenge as well. During our pack run I started noticing what a difference we were making in the morale of those around us. Many people that knew James would come up and touch my pack or say a kind word on what we were doing. I knew at this point that all my doubt from the night before was gone and we gave the field our very best that day. It was a day of never leaving a teammate behind to struggle and forming our own bonds of family with each other that afternoon. That is what James was all about and throughout our trek I could hear him saying “we got this”, “this isn’t hard”, and “help your team”. At the end of the ZFC and I introduced my wife and son to the Zimmerman family. TSP is all about family bonds and I wanted my family to know theirs. We all have different backgrounds, but the family bonds we build around each other have the power to lift a spirit even on our lowest day. I am honored to have carried James’ stone and memories that afternoon, but this was just the beginning of the weekend that I spent with them.
On Sunday it was time to uphold another part of the weekend I was looking forward to with James’. His stone was taken from their family fire pit where they have forged memories over the years and I brought him to mine. Throughout the afternoon my son, who is 5, helped me haul brush and tree limbs to our fire pit. It was a nice 60 degree day for some hard work and a bonfire. I placed James’s stone near me, just before touching off a 6’ fire in his honor. I’m sure he was smiling ear to ear. Hard work and being outside is something that both of our families love and I’m glad I could share that. I sat and reflected on the event the day prior and went over how things could have been done better and how I could have been a better leader. My next outing will be better due to this one. It’s all a learning experience and was very thought provoking. It was nice to have James’ ideals in my head while mulling it all over. For my last adventure of the weekend I participated in the Healthy High 5K on the Orono campus on Monday. To say I didn’t look like the other racers is an understatement. I was dressed in my work shirt and heavy cargo shorts with no performance gear and no running garb like the other 500 people. I did, however, have my ruck and a sandbag on my shoulders. It was a very uncomfortable and heavy burden of 150lbs extra for the TSP families. It was the physical weight of a person that would be a constant reminder to me that we are never alone. I had packed all 4 of the stones we carried over the weekend in my ruck: Zimmerman, Brainard, Silk (who is from Orono), and Gelineau.
The date of April 20 is important as Gelineau had given his life on this very day 11 years prior. It was threatening to rain on us at the start and all I heard was grumbling from a lot of people that they might get wet. HA! That is what people were worried about? It seemed petty to even hear this after the gravity of the weekend had set in. I was welcoming the rain with open arms. It was one final tribute to the amazing men for which we gave the weekend; to be completely humbled by the load and weather. The weather did not disappoint me. I finished in under 50 minutes and was met by Tom and Tony at the end with a warm embrace of new found friendship. They had run the 10K after we had all battered our bodies at the ZFC, too. The bonds we make in life with complete strangers that hold the same values and goals as us are simply amazing. I learned so much about myself over the weekend I spent with James’s memories. I’ll never get to meet him, but his ideals and strengths will be taught to another generation and passed on. I will see to it. MHANF.
Dear family and friends of Captain Brainard,
On April 18, 2015, I had the distinct honor of carrying Army Captain John R. ”Jay” Brainard’s Summit Project memorial stone over the course of nearly 10 miles in Orono for the Zimmerman Fitness Challenge. The stone I carried was chosen by Jay’s wife Emily and was transported from one of Emily’s favorite hiking trails in Germany. It is a particularly substantial stone but one fitting of who it represents. Jay was an avid outdoorsman and loved spending time in the Maine woods. On this day, the stone would spend a significant amount of time in the University of Maine woods, where Jay most likely spent a lot of time training as an Army ROTC cadet. Jay was commissioned as an officer in the Army after graduating from UMaine in 2008. He later became an Apache helicopter pilot and was assigned to the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. I was very proud to share the stone with the current Army ROTC staff and cadets who were also competing in the challenge.
I was joined by my Summit Project Team; Thomas Hayden, Spencer Smoot, and Scott Stitham each carrying memorial stones of their own. They carried the memorial stones of SSG Brandon Silk, Spc. Christopher D. Gelineau, and the namesake of the Zimmerman Challenge 1stLT James Zimmerman respectively.
In many ways I felt like I had no business being on that course that day carrying Jay’s stone. I was very anxious before the competition and I knew the event would be one of the most physically demanding tasks I’d ever done. In comparison to many of the participants, I was older, slower, and not as fit. Completing the course with a memorial stone in my ruck along with an additional 35 lbs of weight seemed like an impossible task. It would take every ounce of strength and determination I had in me.
Jay had a way of encouraging people and pushing the outside of their comfort zone. I thought most about something Jay said to Emily on their first hike together up Mount Katahdin. They were on Knife’s Edge, a particularly steep part of one of the trails, which made Emily nervous. Jay’s way to encourage Emily was to say “you can do this right now, or you can sit there and wait until a helicopter comes to pick you up. But you’ve got this.” There would be no helicopter coming for me that day. There would only be honor, courage, commitment, and the brotherhood of my fellow Summit Project Team.
The best way I could describe our team’s performance was slow and steady. We received encouragement from all of the other teams as they were aware of our important mission. James Zimmerman’s family would pat our rucks for strength and luck as they passed us on the march. We ran twelve loops around the UMaine mall so this happened many times over. The enormous support was emotionally overwhelming at times. Although our bodies wanted to quit as we progressed through the course, our hearts would not quit.
The most humbling moment of the day for me was receiving hugs and thanks from James’s mother and father before the race. You could see it in their eyes how much the community remembering their son means to them and their family. My heart broke as I watched James’s cousin sobbing before the race as her family gathered around us. I know the Summit Project is important work but seeing first hand the profound meaning it has to not only the hikers but to the families is an experience I carry with me. I’m most glad about being able to share this experience with my wife and three children. They’ve heard me talk about the Summit Project on many occasions but this was the first time that they could see how important this project is first hand.
The Zimmerman Challenge for Team Summit Project ended with a heap of four tired and drained competitors bodies piled one on top of the other at the finish line. We had endured, persevered and finally triumphed on our mission. I believe Jay would have been proud to look upon our exhausted faces. If Jay can see this, I want to say thank you for being there with us, helping get us through the day. We’ll have to get a helicopter ride from you another day. #MHANF
Coordinator for VETS
The University of Maine
I carried Chris’s stone in the Zimmerman challenge. The Zimmerman challenge is a physical course that honors 1st LT Zimmerman died in Afghanistan Nov. 2 2010 that takes place at the University of Maine.
I was a medic in the Army; I served from 2006 to 2011, which included a tour of Iraq from 08-09. When it comes to fallen solders people talk about honor and sacrifice, but as a medic I hate these words, because it means that one of my kind has fallen. I know in war many things are out of my control, but there will always be guilt. Thankfully during my deployment I did not have to treat any American soldiers, but in that same breath I felt that there was no one looking out for us, which caused me to lose much of my faith. For me that was my natural reaction to seeing the horrors of war.
Contrary to my military background I have not worked out since 2011; I decided to do the Zimmerman challenge because I wanted challenge myself. I did it because I knew that the people that I went to Iraq with wouldn’t want me to sit around a get fat.
Truthfully, I didn’t show up to carry SGT Gelineau’s stone; I didn’t know the soldier nor his story. I showed up for all of the people that died since my involvement in the US military; the people I knew and the people I didn’t know. SGT Gelineau’s stone was the symbol, the “spirit” of the fallen for me. During the challenge there were many times of which I asked, “Why am I doing this? Why am I carrying a 35 pound medic bag with an 11 pound stone?” But I kept going because I realized that I would not – and could not – want it any other way. I am living my life the way I want – not drowning in sorrow – because that is what I know that all of the fallen would want; that was what they sacrificed for. That is what I would want if I didn’t make it back.
Dear Mark and Lynn,
I had the honor of carrying the Summit Project Stone for SSG Brandon Silk during the Zimmerman Fitness Challenge on the 18th of April 2015. It was a privilege I did not take lightly when I got to carry the stone through the event, as I am a combat veteran myself.
It took me a long time to come to write about my experience with the stone as I normally keep my emotions and feelings towards the fallen deeply buried. I have lost a few brothers in the past during deployments. The one that hit me the hardest is the loss of SPC Jose Torre, one of my best friends. I remember Torre’s death and the rage and deep sadness that came with it and I knew SSG Silk’s family and brothers in arms had gone through the same thing. When I first laid eyes on the stone all the memories and emotions came flooding back and it was all I could take not to cry out during the beginning of the event. Instead of crying out, I maintained my outward appearance and I took all the bottled up emotion and turned it into fuel for the Zimmerman Fitness Challenge.
The Zimmerman Fitness Challenge was almost therapeutic for me. I got to release a lot of the emotions that have been stored away for years in a constructive way. Carrying SSG Silk’s stone was one step towards a healing process for me. Not only did I get to release a little of something that burdens my soul, but the requirement to write about carrying the stone is the first time I have ever talked so plainly about the pain I carry. That too, I believe, will help me towards a better place.
I would like to thank the family of SSG Silk for this enormous opportunity to carry the stone and I would like to thank SSG Brandon Silk for his service. If Brandon can somehow get this message I would like for him to say “what’s up!” to Jose. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Brandon, but if he meets Torre I’m sure they will hit it off (although Jose likes Tequila not Guinness).
SGT Thomas Hayden
(Formerly) C CO BSTB 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division
By Brian Feulner, BDN Staff
The fifth annual 1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman Memorial Fitness Challenge at the University of Maine campus in Orono had teams competing through a 6-plus-mile course of Marine Corps-like tasks.
Teams first faced a 3-mile team pack run, where a weighted pack was passed around throughout the team around 12 laps of the university mall. After completing the run, teams made their way behind the baseball field to complete a variety of combat fitness movements, including buddy carries, bear crawls and crab walks. Then it was off into the woods for a 3-mile run with five fitness stations ranging from burpees to team pushups. Once out of the woods, the teams’ upper bodies were tested with pullups, situps, pushups and dips. Once over 700 movements were made, teams made their way back toward the start to crawl through a mud pit toward the finish.
The Zimmerman Memorial Fitness Challenge was established in 2011 to honor and remember 1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman, who was killed by small-arms fire while leading his Marines in Afghanistan in 2010. Zimmerman, a Houlton native, graduated from UMaine’s Navy ROTC in 2008 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.