Five Texas A&M University cadets undertook the fifth Project Atlas Ruck March this past January, starting at California’s Yosemite National Park and finishing at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. During the 10-day march, Bryce Buchanan ’23, Colton Kennedy ’23, Antony Krstulovic Opara ’23, Thomas Sanitate ’23 and David Medina ’24 experienced camaraderie, scenic landscapes, unexpected twists and the opportunity to support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF).
A stellar example of the Aggie Spirit and a cherished tradition since its 2018 inception, the march involves a small team of cadets who organize an annual 1,000-mile ruck to benefit SOWF. The experience tests not only their endurance but also their planning, problem-solving and communication skills.
“The ruck speaks to the kind of selfless servants our cadets are and the values they embody every day as members of the Corps of Cadets,” said Col. Byron Stebbins ’78, Interim Commandant of Cadets. “More importantly, it says a lot about the quality of leaders they will be in the future and the impact they will have on others as a result.”
Buchanan and Kennedy, who participated in 2021, led preparations for this year’s march. In the months prior, the Aggies increased their physical training and charted their route, deliberately selecting and sequencing seven national parks so they would traverse flatter terrains near the march’s end to reduce injuries. The students developed a sparse but complete supply list, limiting each person to one duffle and one toiletries bag.
During the march, their days were equally well calibrated. The team rose at 5 a.m. daily to eat, break camp and pack the truck. They drove to the day’s starting point, where they hiked 10 miles before turning around and returning to the truck. After taking a short break, the group drove one to two hours to the next campsite.
The ruck tested their physical, mental and emotional limits. The team had to pivot their marches at a moment’s notice because of high snowpack in Yosemite and wildfires near Sequoia National Park. They were conscious about refueling their bodies since they burnt approximately 4,500 calories daily, and they also helped each other address injuries.
“It was great to see the teamwork,” said Opara, a first-time participant from The Woodlands, Texas. “When something went wrong, everyone on the ruck came together, put their head down, took care of business and moved on. It really helped the ruck run smoothly.”
Marching for a Mission
The cadets’ commitment to selfless service aligns with the mission of SOWF, a nonprofit founded in 1980 that currently funds the educations of 972 children of fallen Special Operations Warriors and Medal of Honor recipients. Its cradle-to-career educational assistance mission includes tutoring, a college-preparation program, internships and assistance with career placement. Thanks to SOWF’s funding and services, 441 children have graduated from college.
The donations raised annually during the Project Atlas Ruck March have helped SOWF better serve these individuals. “We both thank and truly applaud the cadets who have participated in Project Atlas Ruck. In the last five years, they have raised more than $74,000 rucking over 1,000 miles per year for our organization,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Clay Hutmacher, president and CEO of SOWF. “That is heartfelt dedication and an incredible test of will and effort.”
One of SOWF’s beneficiaries is Jake Worrell ’23, whose father, Maj. Matthew W. Worrell ’94, died during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. “SOWF has been with me from the get-go, helping me with anything I needed through middle school and high school,” the Tomball, Texas, resident said. “Having its support the past 16 years has meant the world to me and has allowed me to truly focus on academics and nothing else.”
As a member of the Corps’ Outfit D-1 Devils, Worrell also appreciates his peers' commitment to supporting SOWF. “It means so much to me that my fellow cadets are supporting such a great cause and have the heart to think of Gold Star families,” he added.
Having completed this year’s march, the participants are enjoying memories of beautiful scenery and impressive teamwork—and returning to the lessons learned over those 10 days. “This ruck taught me that almost everything is bigger than yourself. You’d have your personal problems, like blisters or being beat up from the day. But it’s never about you at all; it’s about your team completing the ruck,” said Buchanan, a native of Richland Hills, Texas. “And in the bigger scope of things, it’s not about us at all. I’m just some guy rucking 1,000 miles through the Southwest. It’s about the people we can give back to and the opportunity to support them.”
Do you know an Aggie who is selflessly serving? Let our editor, Dunae Reader '15, know at the bottom of this page and they could be featured in a future issue of Spirit!