It's 6:30 a.m. Under a pinkening sky, about a thousand sleep-deprived friends and strangers mill about on an open field, while a brass band plays "God Bless America."
On a set of risers are several Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers in fatigues, including Master Sergeant Jason Fleming, whose crisp voice could carry across the field, even if he weren't currently speaking into a microphone.
"Welcome to the eighth annual March For The Fallen," he says.
The crowd erupts in cheers.
Why The March
After the chaplain gives a quick invocation, Major General Anthony Carrelli steps up to brief everyone about the day's titular event: A 28-mile march across mountainous terrain, with a turnaround point at mile seven and aid stations every two miles. At the end of his briefing, he points toward the sky.
"You see that? That's the sun rising over a free country," he says. "That is not by chance. That is by choice. The fallen warriors we're marching in honor of, it was their choice, so that we can start another day here in a free country."
Across the field, a howitzer fires a bone-rattling shot. "God bless America," the woman next to me gleefully cries.
FinTwit On The March
The March For The Fallen is an annual 28-mile "ruck"—meaning, a hike while wearing a backpack; in this case, one weighing at least 35 pounds.
Held every September at the Pennsylvania National Guard Training Facility in Fort Indiantown Gap, the March was conceived as a way to pay tribute to the military servicemembers who have died, as well as honor the families and loved ones they've left behind.
A ruck in the woods might sound like an unusual place to embed an ETF.com reporter. But like a good 20% of the hikers around me, I'm here because of Wes Gray.
Gray is the CEO of Alpha Architect, an advisor and boutique ETF issuer. Known throughout the industry for his passion for quantitative finance and his tell-it-like-it-is charisma, Gray has also amassed a vast following on his blog and on Twitter, especially among the so-called "FinTwit" community of financial professionals.
Through just a handful of blog posts and Tweets, Gray has enticed some of the brightest minds and fastest-rising FinTwit stars to join the March: Morningstar's Ben Johnson, Pragmatic Capitalism's Cullen Roche, a cluster of folks from the ever-expanding Ritholtz empire. This year alone, roughly 150 Marchers have joined Alpha Architect's team.
Although there are teams and medals handed out for top finishers, the March isn't a race, per se. It's more of a shared experience, where everyone strives for their personal summit and nobody gets left behind. The atmosphere here is friendly and collaborative: You get the sense that you're surrounded by a bunch of decent people all trying to do a decent thing for somebody else.
It's a lot like FinTwit itself, actually.
"A Living Memorial"
The March For The Fallen started eight years ago, when Major General John Gronski was still division commander for the Army National Guard's 28th Infantry Division, with about 15,000 soldiers under his command. (He has since retired.)
Gronski had heard about the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile "rucksack" hike through New Mexico's White Sands Desert in honor of the U.S. and Filipino soldiers captured by the Japanese during World War II and who were forced to march 65 miles under brutal conditions.
Struck by the concept, Gronski had planned to take some of his Pennsylvania-based Guardsman to the event. However, the logistics didn't work, so he instead held a satellite event at the Fort Indiantown Gap training facility, dubbing it the March For The Fallen, "so that participants could do it in honor of any fallen warrior from any service, any era, and any country, for that matter," he says.
"I think of it as a living memorial," he says. "You sweat, you bleed; you actually think about who you're doing it for as you're doing it. You keep the spirit of these fallen warriors alive."
That first year, 34 people marched. This year, on Sept. 26, more than 700 people are, including active as well as retired service members, their families and friends, and civilians. Another few hundred volunteers run the aid tents and medic trucks.
More than two dozen Gold Star families—that is, families of soldiers who have died—are in attendance as well.
"The families really appreciate it," says Gronski, "because they can see firsthand that their loved ones are not being forgotten."
’A Better Version Of Ourselves’
In the years since its inception, the March has expanded in scope. While the base version of the event remains the 28-mile ruck, there's now an option to hike it with or without the pack; to do a 14-mile version (which I've opted for); to run/walk a 5K; and there's even a 28-mile hand cycle version, for wounded or disabled participants who can't walk the trail.
The event draws participants of every age and background. On the trail, I chat with men and women of all ages, fitness levels and backgrounds: There's a group of coworkers celebrating a friend who lost her fight against cancer; a man with a ZZ Top-style beard who likes to shoot AK-47s in the woods; two wives, both ex-military, who are marching for their fallen daughter. I even meet a few Canadians.
They all have one thing in common: They march with purpose. This isn't just a nature hike to them; almost everyone on the trail has lost someone dear to them, military or not.
In addition, the course is filled with reminders of those who've been lost; the names and portraits of fallen Pennsylvania National Guardsmen appear on mile markers for the course, as well as on a Wall Of Honor at the start/finish line.
You'd think that would make the March a solemn event, but the vibe here is more one of joyful struggle.
"This is our chance to be alive, to suffer and to live," says Sumit Gupta, an engineer from Houston. "This is our chance to honor our military veterans and, like they did, challenge ourselves to be a better version of ourselves."
Not About Money, But Gratitude
For his part, Gray first heard about the March five years ago, when he met Gronski at a veterans' charity event. As a former Marine who makes a point to employ several former service members at his firm, he was immediately taken with the concept.
"People talk a lot about ESG [environmental, social and governance investing] , but this is actual ESG," he says. "It's not just not buying an oil stock; it's you putting your foot forward and impacting people's lives directly."
The first year they participated, Alpha Architect brought 10 people to the March. After that, however, the team's size grew exponentially, rising to 70 the following year, and 125 the year after that.
Most folks on the Alpha Architect team are financial professionals who either know Gray personally or, more commonly, follow him online. About two-thirds are independent financial advisors, while another 10-20% are ultra-high-net-worth investors.
"People get it, they respect it," says Gray. "It's not an event where we show off how much money we have, but one of gratitude, of honoring service."
Call To Help
Here, however, no money is being collected, and no pledges are being made. The March doesn't even have its own standalone website, just a Facebook page and a sub-category on the training center's recreation page.
Gray argues that interest in the March reflects a deeper change in the way financial professionals are thinking about money, their careers—everything.
"There's been a revolution in the financial services industry, driven by the rise of ETFs and independent advisors," he says. "It's not the same old-school, dog-eat-dog Wall Street anymore. The culture is increasingly more impact-focused; people want to do a job that they feel good about."
Gray walks the walk: Before 9/11, he was on track to get his Ph.D. After the attacks, however, he enlisted in the Marines, then deployed to Iraq in 2004. When he came back, he built a firm dedicated, above all, to research and investor education.
His story is far from unique. Several advisors and bankers I speak to on the trail also enlisted post-9/11, and—even those who didn't say that the terrorist attacks forever changed the way they thought about their jobs. Some became fiduciaries; others redirected their focus toward financial planning instead of trading. Still others engaged more with charity work. All of them felt called to help.
The March For The Fallen isn't a charity event. The event itself is the charity: It's yet another way people feel called to help—in this case, by making sure those who have suffered the ultimate loss know they aren't alone.
Embracing The Cracks
The night before the hike, Gray and other members of the Alpha Architect team host a brief orientation, sharing hiking tips and tricks, as well as specifics on what to expect. It's also a chance for Gold Star family members to say a few words to those that have gathered.
Debbie Freeman, principal of Colorado-based Peak Financial Advisors, takes the microphone. She speaks of her brother, Joe, a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Motivated by 9/11, he was studying to become a history teacher when he enlisted. He died by suicide in 2014.
"Joe deserves to be remembered as a selfless man who served our country for 12 years," she tells the room. "I refuse to let his legacy be anything but that."
Freeman is hiking the full 28 miles, carrying a ruck of 22 pounds, representing the average number of soldiers, both active-duty and veterans, who take their lives each day, according to a 2012 Veterans Affairs report.
"Losing Joe was the most traumatic experience of my life," she says. "But we all have pain, we all have sadness. What makes us different is how we choose to respond."
"I choose to embrace the cracks," she says. "I choose to live a life worthy of everything me and my family have been through."
Dog Tags For The Fallen
At the end of the orientation, participants pass a table on which are dozens of dog tags, printed with the names of real soldiers who have died. As we leave, Gray asks participants to select one from the table, then carry it with them on the hike.
"The idea is to spread gratitude and appreciation for the people who sacrifice, and the families who have to deal with it," he says.
Reaching into the pile, I select the dog tag of Ed Zackowski—"Zeek", I learn, when I later look him up. He was a sergeant in the Army who deployed to Vietnam the same year as my father; the two men have similar hair and smiles.
Turns out Zeek was a bit of a writer, too. On his memorial wall is a poem he sent to his family back home:
I came to this place because there was a job to be done.
Right from the beginning I knew it wouldn't be fun.
I'm here for a year and a year I will stay.
I'll fight like hell and I'll hope and pray
My being here will keep my brother away.
Zeek's brother never did have to fight in Vietnam.
Act Of Thanks
I spoke to dozens of advisors and participants for this story, many of whom initially said the same thing: "I don't have any personal connection to the military."
But as we spoke, it became apparent that almost every single person had a family member or a friend who had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. They too are the families and friends left behind; they too carry grief, and the desire to honor the sacrifices made on their behalf.
America has now been at war for 18 years. My generation has had to carry the burden of this eternal war for our parents, and their parents; and now we're handing that burden off to our kids. We've done it invisibly, too, a sacrifice made away from the headlines, erased in real-time.
That's why the March For The Fallen is so meaningful for so many: It's a simple act of gratitude for a thankless job.
"I try not to be sad by the way these fallen warriors died, but be inspired by the way they chose to live," Gronski tells me.
I think of Ed Zackowski, whose dog tag now sits on my desk as a reminder to live while I am alive, because it's a choice, an obligation; because someone out there I didn't even know thought that life was worth protecting.
What he did matters. What I do matters.
It has to.
Contact Lara Crigger at [email protected]