ST. LOUIS — For many people, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and a three-day weekend of barbecues, beach trips and other outdoor activities. But for those who’ve lost loved ones to war, it can mean visits to the cemetery and the re-emergence of grief and pain.
Two former Navy SEALs who didn’t want people to lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday co-founded Carry The Load, a nonprofit group dedicated to the mindful awareness of those who died in service to the U.S. military.
Every year, Carry The Load organizes a monthlong national relay consisting of five routes covering 20,000 miles across all 48 states in the continental U.S. People march in remembrance of their loved ones’ service and to make sure their memories are never forgotten.
“You die twice — when you physically pass and then when people forget about you,” said Dave Wirtz, whose son, Scotty Wirtz, 42, an operations support specialist with the Defense Intelligence Agency, was killed in a suicide bombing in Syria in 2019.
“Their mission is they’re never going to forget about Scotty or everybody else,” he said of the group.
Before he joined the intelligence agency, Scotty Wirtz served eight years as a Navy SEAL, which is how he met Stephen Holley, who started Carry The Load in 2011 with friend and SEAL veteran Clint Bruce.
Holley described what motivated him to start the group: “It was some pain, some anger and some frustration of having lost those friends.”
The organization has raised more than $32 million, most of it going to educate the public about the military and to physical and mental health services for veterans.
Dave Wirtz marched with Carry The Load last weekend in the family’s hometown, St. Louis. He put weights in his backpack in a show of solidarity with his son and the SEALs, whose packs can weigh over 100 pounds, and as a symbolic way to “carry the load.”
That leg of the relay paused at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, where Scotty is buried. As nearly 100 marchers arrived at the site, rain began to pour, and thunder cracked overhead. But it didn’t stop Dave Wirtz and his ex-wife, Sandy Wirtz, from paying their respects at their son’s tombstone.
“We hear every day about our boys who are killed in service, but it is unimaginable until you’ve experienced it yourself,” Sandy Wirtz said. “It changes your life.”
Dave Wirtz said he will never forget the night he learned about the death of his son, who was on his 24th trip to a combat zone.
“It was quarter to 11 on a Wednesday night,” he said. “I was watching TV, and somebody rang the doorbell.”
When he saw that the people on his doorstep were with the Defense Intelligence Agency, he knew what was coming.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said.
The Islamic State terrorist group, better known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack in Manbij, Syria, that also killed 15 other military members.
At the cemetery, Dave said: “Visiting Scotty reminds me of the good stuff. It’s always more of a celebration.
“I wish he was here.”
Carry The Load’s relay will end Sunday and Monday in Dallas, where 20,000 people are expected to march for the people they lost, love and refuse to forget.
Holley said that on this Memorial Day, he wants Americans to remember what it’s really all about: “Take some time to read someone’s story, to put a name to a face, to make it personal this year.”