Why We Return to Maine

On November 2, 2010, United States Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant James Russell Zimmerman, 25 years old, was killed in Afghanistan, a hero to the end. He left behind a young wife, his parents, a brother, a sister, and more. All born and bred in Maine, with its awesome state motto “The Way Life Should Be”. He also left behind a whole lot of people who thought the world of this kid, including my son, one of James’ best friends, who had the equally awesome honor and responsibility of escorting James back home to Maine and then to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

When a young hero like that leaves this world, there is a void that goes way beyond a war casualty number. There is the upsetting of plans that should have been – a career in the Marine Corps, a family of kids, birthdays, baptisms, and anniversaries celebrated, and the inevitable ups and downs of life experienced with loved ones. But that was not to be James’ fate. And yet, he still lives on in the hearts of those who love him and those who knew him, like us, in many small ways.

One of those ways is the annual Zimmerman Fitness Challenge, a grueling obstacle course challenge hosted by the Navy & Marine Corps ROTC house at the University of Maine in Orono ME, four hours north of our fair town of Londonderry NH. The idea for the Challenge came from then Gunny Sgt. John Fergerson, himself a graduate of UMaine’s Marine Corps ROTC program and now a 1st Lieutenant. In his eyes and the eyes of most who knew him, Lt. Zimmerman personified not only the best kind of Marine – gritty, determined, and always up for a challenge. But he was also a happy-go-lucky guy. So concocting a fitness program in his honor, to be organized by the current class of Navy & Marine Corps ROTC students, was deemed a fitting way to honor his memory, with all proceeds going toward a scholarship fund at the university in his name.

We were told by a number of the officers and enlisted folks who run the ROTC program that the group of candidates, from which James and my son came, pretty much sets the standard for how future classes are compared. And that’s a proud thing for all the parents and families of our – as we call them – “kids”. They have now been serving in the Navy and Marine Corps for several years now, as pilots, infantrymen, tank commanders, and even one Navy Seal. Most have done a tour or two in Afghanistan. They’d set the standard for just about any team, I would say, in a most biased way!

And throughout their years at UMaine, their leader was always James, the big kid from northern Maine, with the serious approach to the Marine Corps, but a happy-go-lucky attitude about almost everything else. “It’s only college” he used to say. He was not a tall kid, but he was a BIG kid, broad across the shoulders, with arms that could do some damage. He was the perfect bouncer at a local club where he worked and where, I suspect, his usual good humor was tested by one or two cocky patrons who probably lived to regret it. Barely.

So my wife and I commit to make the annual trek to Orono every April, to honor James by being there at this Challenge and to gather with his family, whom it is our honor to know and respect for their dignity and dedication to their son and the event that bears his name. Thirty-nine teams, 156 people, took the Challenge this year. They ranged from students to retired folks, and in the family category, even some five-year olds. They came from fraternities, other ROTC programs, local gyms and fitness clubs, just off the street, and even one team from West Point. They each had to run three miles, surge through an obstacle course, do 75-100 sit ups, 15-30 pull ups, 50-75 push ups, and the grand finale, slither on their bellies through a mud pit. All on a day that saw a high of 45 degrees with a brisk wind off the river. Northern Maine doesn’t really see spring till mid-May, dontchaknow. The truly brave – like James’ dad, who completed the Challenge for his third year – jumped in the river after that mud crawl. Luckily the ice had thawed.

Now that mud crawl did have an option. The teams could do a low crawl in the dirt right next to the mud pit. Those of us cheering on the sidelines managed to persuade the few who looked at that option to do the manly thing and hit the mud pit – and all of them did…except for the West Point team. We were too late in our persuasion to reroute them – the only team not to go through the mud. Hadn’t brought a change of clothing, we heard. That struck up more than a few chuckles and a little inter-service rivalry. Especially when the young men and women from the Navy and Marine Corps ROTC group – who run the event but cannot take part – themselves all plunged into the mud and crawled to the finish line. As did the Captain. The older guys from the National Guard team crawled through the mud. But the West Pointers stayed dry to the end. James must have gotten a kick out of that, from whichever cloud he was perched on, enjoying this event.

And so with the closing of this year’s Zimmerman Challenge, the feeding of 156 hungry athletes, the taking of many pictures of tired, but happy, mud-covered people, the awarding of the official Hammer trophies for the top teams, among whom were James’ dad’s team, a group of Sig Ep fraternity brothers with true grit, and the West Pointers, we bid our goodbyes to James’ family, some old friends and many new ones, and went to check in at our hotel.

On the way there, my wife and I reminisced about James. About the stellar example he was for the other young men and women who were fortunate enough to grow with him through those college years and UMaine’s Navy & Marine Corps ROTC program. And we were just as proud of the current ROTC kids and those who participated in this Challenge. For they now have a small idea of who James really was – and is. They too can now carry a little piece of Lt. Zimmerman with them in their hearts.

And that’s why we return to Maine each year. For the lesson this event teaches.

That’s all you can do with the memory of someone as special as James – emulate him. But it’s surely not a bad thing now, is it? Semper Fi, James. We miss you.

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