Brian Bershing and Abi Akins, both of Atlanta, leave the Harrison Township Fire Department May 10 to walk to St. Clair Shores as part of Carry the Load.

Brian Bershing and Abi Akins, both of Atlanta, leave the Harrison Township Fire Department May 10 to walk to St. Clair Shores as part of Carry the Load.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Carry the Load honors veterans, first responders with walk through metro Detroit

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published May 17, 2019

 Bershing’s backpack honors a first responder shot in the line of duty and also contains messages written by people the tour has met along the way to honor and remember those first responders and military members who have died.

Bershing’s backpack honors a first responder shot in the line of duty and also contains messages written by people the tour has met along the way to honor and remember those first responders and military members who have died.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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METRO DETROIT — Barbecues, parades and a day off of work are what come to mind for many people when they think of Memorial Day.

In 2011, however, two veteran U.S. Navy SEALs, Clint Bruce and Stephen Holley, wanted to change that and restore the true meaning of Memorial Day, honoring fallen heroes in the military with a 20-hour and 11-minute Memorial March in Dallas they called Carry the Load.

The following year, Carry the Load launched a National Relay that began at West Point, in New York, and traveled to Dallas, honoring the sacrifices made every day by the nation’s military members, veterans and first responders, and concluding on Memorial Day weekend with a 20-hour Memorial March in Dallas. A West Coast relay was added in 2016, and this year a 3,900-mile Midwest route traveling from Minneapolis to Dallas began May 3 and made its way through metro Detroit, stopping in Harrison Township, St. Clair Shores, Grosse Pointe Farms, Detroit and Allen Park May 10.

Midwest relay manager Doug Bruce said that about 94 percent of the money raised goes toward Carry the Load’s awareness, continuum of care and education programs. Since 2011, Carry the Load has raised $21.7 million. This year’s goal is $2.5 million, and as of May 13, the organization was more than halfway toward meeting that goal.

The Midwest relay team had nine members, including two drivers, a paramedic, walkers and bikers.

Abi Akins, a brand ambassador who lives in Atlanta, started the day on May 10 walking from the Harrison Township Fire Department, 27061 Crocker Blvd., to Veterans Memorial Park in St. Clair Shores with Brian Bershing, and then solo from the park to Kroger, 22332 E. Nine Mile Road. She said she had logged more than 90 miles walking since their journey began.

She said she signed up with a friend when she learned of the opportunity, but it really hit home when her little brother joined the Air Force.

“I had honestly never celebrated Memorial Day in the way it was intended,” she said.

The relay team starts each day at around 7 a.m., walking or biking until 11 p.m., when the tour bus and other support vehicles then drive through the night to the next day’s stop. Because the tour goes for an entire month, Bruce said there is always something to do, from oil changes to laundry to grocery runs.

Over the course of the 32-day relay, the three relay teams will travel 11,500 miles, participate in rallies in 55 cities and cross more than 40 states.

“We absolutely have an impact. We start with one person at a time,” Bruce said. “It’s a movement.”

He said they are greeted at different stops by people who have different stories of their loved ones. One woman, he said, brought them letters, sand from Iwo Jima, challenge coins and other military remembrances.

“It never stops,” Bruce said.

Bershing, who does experiential marketing in Atlanta, said that he thinks of the tour as a “way to pay respect to everyone who has served and is serving.”

He said getting used to all the walking has been difficult, but he has really enjoyed all the people he’s met along the way.

The aches, pains, blisters and bad weather are worth it to pay tribute to veterans and first responders, Akins said.

“Ultimately, none of the crap that we go through compared ... to what these men and women have done on behalf of our freedom,” Akins said.

Dallas firefighter Brandon Asberry was a cyclist during the first 15 days of the relay. He said he rode 125 miles over the first two days, 56 miles the fourth day and 58 miles on May 9. Traveling from Detroit to Allen Park, he was scheduled to ride 13 miles.

The cyclists take on the longer portions of the relay, while the walkers take on 5- to 6-mile chunks at a time.

Asberry is an avid triathlete and cyclist, and he said he couldn’t pass on an opportunity to give back and honor his fellow first responders and members of the military while seeing states that he’s never seen before.

The hardest part, he said, has been leaving his 6-month-old son and girlfriend at home. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

While the May 10 leg of the journey was fairly quiet, at times the group has encountered hundreds of people coming out to support the cause and join in walking a leg of the relay. About 350 people came out for the stop in Chicago.

“It’s one of the most humbling experiences,” said Travis Swaim, of Arizona, who teaches adults with disabilities. “The emotional impact that we have.”

This is Swaim’s third year with the tour.

“It took me a long time to understand the sacrifice our military (and) first responders make,” said Swaim, who is also an untra-runner. “It becomes so much more. I basically can give back a month of my life every year.”

He has been so impacted by the service of others that he has decided to make a career change and get into the fire service.

Along the way, visitors to the tour have made an impact. At one stop, Bershing said, a child came out on his birthday. He had taken his birthday money and used half to buy a present and donated the other half to Carry the Load.

“Hearing the stories, your heart melts,” Akins said. “It’s commendable to see how big the movement can be.”

Through the relay, the members carry a flag and a backpack filled with the names of those who visitors and donors have asked them to keep close to their hearts.

“We carry different people close to the organization,” Swaim said. “In Dallas, we have Reflection Ridge. You walk by all of these people who have given the ultimate sacrifice.”

One family traveled 110 miles to start the relay with Carry the Load in Minneapolis in honor of their son, Ryan. Akins said that they were so honored to be part of the movement, but she felt that the honor was theirs as Carry the Load volunteers.

“That’s when it became real,” she said.

To learn more or to donate, visit www.carrytheload.org or follow the journey on Twitter and Instagram @carrytheload.

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