Retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Landon Ranker recently marched through the high desert terrain of New Mexico, a grueling and challenging 26.2 mile journey that takes place at the White Sands Missile Range. He was part of a group of approximately 25 athletes through Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program that participated in The Bataan Memorial Death March, an annual memorial march conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health, and, in many cases, their very lives.
For Ranker, completing this marathon was personal. His great uncle on his mom’s side of the family, Ray L. Swindell, was one of the hundreds of U.S. soldiers that died in the Philippines during that horrific treatment of Prisoners of War in April 1942. “Bataan is something I have wanted to do for years,” Ranker said. “To be able to pay homage that way, not just talk but do something, is really special.”
Ray Swindell was one of three brothers, from Montana, that served during World War II. His younger brother Pete got into the war at the very end, but saw action at the Battle of Okinawa. He would eventually retire as a Sergeant Major in the Army. The middle brother, Carroll, was also a member of the Greatest Generation and served in the military during wartime. Ray’s daughter, Arlene Nelson, who Ranker affectionately calls “Aunt Arlene” is the primary link to this family history. “Our family knew he died in the Philippines,” Ranker said. But little more was known until his remains were recovered and brought back to Montana a couple decades ago. In a twist of fate, Ranker was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for three years as part of the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency), a join unit that was responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldier. It was there that he was able to learn more about Swindell’s story.
So participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March was a unique opportunity for Ranker. “Ray is the one that my family member says I remind them of the most,” he said. “Ray is also the only other family member I knew who was Infantry.” Ranker himself served in the 101st as well as the 10th Mountain Division.
The Bataan Memorial Death March wasn’t solely about Ranker’s great uncle, however. “He (Ray Swindell) wasn’t there by himself,” said Ranker, who is a student of military and WWII history. “This is about all of them. And this is the closest thing we can do to pay tribute.”
It took about seven hours for Ranker to complete the march, which technically was his first marathon. “I have done lots of half marathons but never a full marathon,” he said. “I have also been a part of several 25-mile road marches as part of light infantry, so that is how I treated it… I knew what I was getting into.”
“The trail is not bad. It is no different than a trail run… and the weather was great that day.” Ranker paired up with a Vietnam veteran named Gerry and his daughter Nic to walk the route for most of the march. “I noticed he had a 101st patch, which caught my attention. It was great to connect with them. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been able to maintain that pace.”
This event, as well as other adaptive sports Ranker has participated in is personal for another reason. In May 2008, he was injured in Afghanistan as a result of a mortar round. He suffered bilateral knee damage and was originally told by doctors he wouldn’t run again. “I ran all the time before my injury.” He also incurred traumatic brain injury which affects balance, peripheral vision, information processing and speech. So being able to run, hike, and march now is great. “Running is my escape. It helps clear my head and helps with headaches.”
In total, Ranker has had four combat deployments, three to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. The head injury he suffered during his fourth deployment, was his fourth one. One occurred in training and happened at a time when traumatic brain injury wasn’t really on the radar screen. The other two took place while in Iraq, once when he fell off a cliff and another when an IED (improvised explosive devise) blew up in front of his vehicle.
He joined the Army in 1989 and retired with 28 years of service (17 years before his injury). Through the Continuation on Active Duty (COAD) program which provides an opportunity for some soldiers wounded in combat to continue their military service, Ranker spent eleven additional years at various stations, including the one in Hawaii as well as serving as the NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) in Charge of the adaptive sports program at Fort Campbell, Kentucky for five years. “That’s how I got started with Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA).”
His first DSUSA event was the annual Ski Spectacular event in Breckenridge, Colorado, one of the largest winter adaptive sports festivals in the country. “It was after about 13 or 14 months of rehab and I was still trying to get my balance when I attended it,” he said. “Skiing was the first time working on it (his balance) outside of rehab.” Although Ranker had skied once in Alaska as part of his military training (mainly cross country skiing), this obviously was different.
But his skiing instructor suggested he check out the race camp after the first day of lessons. “I can’t say no, so I did. But I didn’t know what I was doing… I was a little scared.” After getting over the initial nervousness though, he caught on to skiing. “It grabbed me… helped me push my limits.” Fellow Warfighter Sports ambassador Matt Melancon once told Ranker “when you are skiing, your speech gets better.” “I hadn’t thought of it that way… it was validation for the rest of the week. I knew these adaptive sports programs (like DSUSA’s Warfighter Sports program) helped, but wasn’t sure how it was helping me until then.”
Skiing is something Ranker enjoys doing more so than any other sport. “It clears my head when I am skiing. I don’t have to think about anything else. I don’t have word issues or decision issues.” 2018 marked Ranker’s fourth Ski Spec and he has participated in other Warfighter Sports activities including the Hood to Coast Relay (a 197 mile adventure) twice. In addition, Ranker has skied with Challenge Aspen and Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, both chapters of DSUSA. Living in Colorado Springs, he is also a regular at Breckenridge Ski Resort, which he considers his home mountain. “Colorado Springs is a great place to live. There is a new VA facility, lots of programs for veterans, and a program that focuses on TBI.” Ranker, who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, has also won medals at the annual Warrior Games in the past.