Thirty-one brothers of Troy’s Alpha Tau Omega fraternity are heading to Panama City, Florida, over spring break, but with a different purpose than the regular party-goers.
The participants will embark on a six-day, 128-mile trek, beginning with a send-off at the main quad on Troy campus on March 4, and ending at the Pier Park in Panama City Beach.
The walk is organized to raise money to assist wounded military veterans.
Participants will be walking through various towns and spending the nights at local churches throughout their journey.
This annual tradition, named Walk Hard, began in 2009 when two members of the fraternity saw a man walking along Highway 231 and carrying an American flag.
Inspired by the man, the two began to brainstorm how they could create a unique philanthropy event to raise money for military veterans, and Walk Hard was born.
Over the years, the participation rate within the fraternity has grown significantly. Over 50 members of ATO expressed interest to walk this year, according to the fraternity.
Due to safety purposes and regulations set out by the Department of Transportation, many had to be turned away.
ATO President Blake Swicord, vice president Tom Andrews and Walk Hard director Dash Merritt were part of the logistics support team that conducted interviews and hand-picked the 31 participants, the largest group to embark on the hike thus far.
Alex Castanza, a sophomore athletic training major from Montgomery and a participant in this year’s walk, discussed some of the challenges he expects to face along the way.
“All the walkers will be faced with many challenges, both mental and physical,” Castanza said. “Mentally, I feel like the biggest struggle for me will be keeping my mind off of how much farther I have to go.
“Physically, I hope I don’t get any blisters … I can deal with the pain, but it would just make the rest of the walk significantly harder to bear.”
Walk Hard director Dash Merritt, a junior global business major from Enterprise, said he knows firsthand the challenges and rewards that come from this experience, having walked the 128-mile trek as a freshman.
“The biggest reward that I gained from my experience was having time to think and reflect,” he said.
“I began to compare my situation to our wounded warriors and realized that the pain I was experiencing was nothing compared to the pain they went through just for me,” Merritt said. “I had a new appreciation for those warriors, and the weight of their sacrifice really started to sink in to me.”
For the past two years, Walk Hard has partnered with Jeep Sullivan’s Wounded Warrior Outdoor Adventures LLC, a nonprofit organization.
According to its website, Jeep Sullivan aims to “offer combat-wounded veterans and their families opportunities to enjoy God’s great outdoors. Our mission is to honor these courageous men and women while facilitating complete healing of the body, soul and spirit.”
Last year, the fraternity was able to raise and donate $11,000 to Jeep Sullivan, but this year the organization hopes to reach $20,000.
Merritt said that one of the reasons the fraternity is passionate about this cause is the sacrifices veterans make for the country.
“These warriors willingly risk their lives on a daily basis for millions of people that they don’t even know,” he said.
“Our country owes it to our military to take care of our soldiers, just as they have taken care of us.”
Updates of the journey, as well as the Gofundme page for the participants, can be found on the event’s Facebook page, Alpha Tau Omega Walk Hard.