Through 20 years of March Backs, Wallace Ward has seen it all.
In the beginning, the march was 15 miles, now 20 years later it is only 12. Over the years it has moved from taking place in the middle of the night to starting in the morning. There has been rain and thunderstorms that soaked and threatened the marchers. There was a hamstring injury that slowed him down, but couldn't stop him.
No matter the obstacle, the distance or the weather, since members of the Long Gray Line were invited to the March Back 20 years ago, Wallace Ward has completed every single one.
This year, as he stepped off from Camp Buckner before dawn with India Company, Ward, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in the Class of 1958, earned the distinction of being the oldest graduate to participate in the annual tradition.
He first joined the March Back at 67 and now aged 87 he once again walked the entire way from start to finish.
"I come back to March Back every year because I love to run," Ward said. "I've participated in 10 marathons and one ultramarathon that was 62 miles. I have been running and walking all my life so when they said they wanted people to hike back with the plebes I thought that was a great opportunity since I love being outside running and walking."
Retired Lt. Col. Wallace Ward, USMA Class of 1958, marches back with the Class of 2023. Ward, 87, was the oldest grad to participate in the 2019 March Back.
(Photo by Brandon OConnor)
The decision brought him full circle as it was running that first introduced Ward to West Point.
A track athlete in nearby Washingtonville, New York, Ward competed at a regional track meet at West Point as a high schooler. He entered the meet with a single goal — earning the one point he needed to secure his varsity letter for the season — and determined to do whatever it took to secure it.
With the finish line nearby and his goal within reach, Ward dove across the line. His last bit of effort earned him his letter, but it also left shrapnel in his left elbow that has served as a, "reminder of West Point for the rest of my life."
It would prove to be the first of many marks West Point would leave upon him as the track meet set him upon a path that eventually allowed him to enter West Point as a prior service cadet after he was not accepted directly from high school and enlisted in the Army in 1951.
"I'd never been to West Point," Ward said of that track meet roughly 70 years ago. "I got there and saw this great fortress over the Hudson River and said, 'Wow, this is fantastic. I'd sure like to be able to go there for school.'"
His time at West Point changed the course of his life after being abandoned along with his brothers in a Brooklyn flat by his mother. They bounced through different foster homes before finding stability and discipline after moving near Washingtonville.
West Point continued the process of instilling discipline and helped to keep him from becoming, "a kid in New York, running the streets, stealing and things like that, getting in all kinds of trouble," Ward said.
Retired Lt. Col. Wallace Ward, USMA Class of 1958, marches back with the Class of 2023.
(Photo by Brandon OConnor)
He retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1979 after a career as an air defense officer. Now 61 years after his graduation from West Point, Ward uses his time with the new class during March Back to encourage them and teach them about the place that means so much to him.
"We spend half the time (talking), except when we are going uphill. I always tell them, 'Cut if off, wait until we get to the top of the hill. Then we can resume the conversation,'" Ward said. "When we are walking and having a conversation with the plebes we tell them it is going to be a tough year, stick it out, keep your nose clean and work hard and things will come out alright and you will be proud of the fact you went to West Point."
With 20 years and more than 200 miles of March Backs under his belt, Ward hasn't decided if he'll be back for number 21. He said he will have to, "think about it," before lacing up his sneakers and hiking through the woods with another class seven decades his junior even though he enjoys his time spent with the plebes and talking with them as they traverse the hills.
"I get the enthusiasm of going back to West Point every year and seeing that great fortress on the Hudson River, meeting old friends and comrades and enjoying the atmosphere," Ward said of why he has come back for the last 20 years.
This article originally appeared on United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.