TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Each stage of a 22-mile walk Thursday through Texarkana was a step toward returning meaning to Memorial Day, Carry the Load participants said.
The eight-person relay team that passed through the area is part of the New England Route, which started May 3 at Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. The group's trek includes several stops and public participation on the 3,700-mile journey to Dallas for a Memorial Day meetup with participants tracing four other routes around the country.
Patricia Hernandez said the routes, which will cover 20,000 miles through 48 states, have a singular mission.
"Our main purpose is to restore the meaning of Memorial Day," Hernandez said at the group's midday launch point at the Miller County Department of Human Services off U.S. Highway 67.
To team videographer Hunter Lovelace, Memorial Day has been buried under commercialism.
"It's more than about buying mattresses and having a long weekend," said Hunter, a Kentucky native and student at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia.
Each route of Carry the Load is destined for the Dallas Memorial March as part of an effort to highlight the sacrifices of military members and veterans, first responders and their families.
"We have seen firsthand the powerful impact Carry the Load has had on service members and families of those who have lost loved ones," said Navy SEAL veteran Stephen Holley, co-founder, president and CEO of Carry the Load. "Our volunteers tell us that participating in Carry the Load has given them a deeper connection to those who serve and a greater appreciation for the sacrifices made for our freedom."
An overarching aim of the relay is to raise money for veterans.
"Our goal this Memorial May is to raise $2.25 million through peer-to-peer fundraising," Holley said.
Lovelace said close to 95% of donations go to Carry the Load's nonprofit partners, many of which provide services to military veterans. Donations can be made online at CarrytheLoad.org or in person at any relay stop.
Since Carry the Load began in 2011, it has raised more than $38 million, according to the organization's website.
Along with Hernandez and Lovelace, the New England relay team is comprised of Georgian Morgan Cooper, who handles public information for the group; Georgia college student and team social media manager Destiny Domzalski; paramedic and Army veteran Matt Eveland of Des Moines, Iowa; Dallas police officer and Air Force/Navy veteran Joe Meno; relay manager and former Army Ranger Andy Medrano of Houston; and Pennsylvania native Zaki Muhammed.
Eveland is in his second year with Carry the Load. He said he was motivated to join because of a coworker, who took a month off work to participate in the relay.
Eveland said the 2023 New England team was organized by the Dallas-based Carry the Load organization, and that members first met each other six months ago via a Zoom meeting. They met in person for the first time at their launch in Vermont.
The group arrived in Texarkana after an 8 a.m. 2.27-mile walk from Hope Fire Department to the Walmart Supercenter in Hope, where they boarded their bus for the short trip to state Highway 108.
At 10:30 a.m., Domzalski and Meno each grabbed a flag -- Destiny carrying the U.S. banner and Meno toting the Carry the Load flag -- and set out on the first Texarkana stage of the relay. The nearly 5-mile walk started at the intersection of Highway 108 and U.S. Highway 67, took in a portion of state Highway 237, and returned to U.S. 67 for the last stretch of the westward route to the DHS.
As the pair completed their walk, Domzalski lowered her flag and proudly noted their relay time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
"Feeling good," she said. "A little hot."
The Southern temperatures were a hot topic among the group.
When the team started, temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, thanks to days of rainy weather, Lovelace said.
"Once we got to Albany (New York), the rain stopped," he said, adding that the humidity and mercury rose as the group descended into the lower states.
Along the way, the people the group has met have compensated for any discomforts. A memorable stop was near Snellville, Georgia -- the hometown of Spc. Etienne J. Murphy, whose face is one of several that adorn the sides of the team bus.
Murphy, an anti-tank gunner, died May 26, 2017, in a Humvee accident while on his first deployment to Syria, Lovelace said.
"His parents made it out to walk with us, and it turned out to be on his birthday," Lovelace said.
But there was something else about Spc. Murphy's family that touched the heart of the team's bus driver, Jay.
"When Mrs. Murphy walked, she put her hands on the side of the bus and kissed his photo. It brought tears to my eyes," said Jay, an Air Force veteran.
At their rest stop at the DHS, the New England team set up a table and draped it with a Carry the Load flag. The flag is the second one the group has used to collect the signatures of people and organizations they have met on their travels. Lovelace said the signatures will be displayed at Carry the Load's headquarters.
Shortly before the group's 12:30 p.m. takeoff, a maroon Chevrolet Suburban whipped into the parking lot. A side window was covered with the names of four cities -- Hot Springs, Arkadelphia, Hope and Texarkana.
Once the SUV was parked, the doors flew open and a group of exuberant young people poured out. They quickly joined Hernandez and Muhammed for the second leg of the Texarkana relay -- a 3.21-mile walk to Beech Street First Baptist Church.
The eight new arrivals were part of the Ginn family from Rogers, Arkansas. Lovelace said they started following the team Wednesday.
Family patriarch Jeremiah Ginn, a former Army Ranger, said the walk is a way he and his family stay connected with those who serve, including in his own family.
Ginn has two military daughters. One is a Marine veteran who was part of a Quick Reaction Force in Iraq. The other is in the 82nd Airborne Infantry stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., which is slated for renaming as Fort Liberty in June.
Ginn, who plans to join the Dallas Memorial March, totes a rucksack for the relay, something he has done since first participating in Carry the Load in 2021. He said he carries it in honor of those who died while in the service.
"When we do this walk, every step of the way we're thinking about those we had to bury," said the father of 11.
After Beech Street First Baptist Church, the group was scheduled to depart at 2 p.m. for a 3.1-mile walk to TAC on Robison Road. From TAC, the team would walk the nearly 6 miles to OT's Landing on West Seventh Street and then about 5 miles to First Baptist Church in Redwater.
The New England route then was scheduled to depart at 9:30 p.m. for a bus ride to Omaha, Texas.
People can join the race at any of the rally locations open to the public. Registration is complimentary at carrytheload.org/Memorial-May.
Lovelace said even if a person cannot join the actual race, he or she can still do something.
"Let people know who we are and what we do," he said.