by Carrie Adams

Rounding down the hill to the Super Spartan Mid-Atlantic sandbag carry with the Team X-T.R.E.M.E. crew, eleven year old Junior Marine Luke Sliwinski was offered the option to take one of the the lighter 20lb bags in lieu of the men’s 40lb bags that were stacked in piles at the base of a quarter mile loop over halfway through the 10.5 mile course.  He immediately declined the offer with a polite, “No, thank you.” And without another word stooped down, his slim build struggling slightly under the weight, hoisted the bag up to his shoulder, and kept moving forward.

When Luke Sliwinski was five years old, he drew a picture of the twin

photo courtesy of Heather Sliwinski

towers ablaze, an image all too painful and familiar from the morning of September 11, 2001.  Too young to remember it in person, he’d grown up seeing the images and as he drew in the details, he knew that all he wanted was to be a Marine.  At that same tender age of five, he saw an air show demonstration from Marines at a nearby airfield, and was even more determined to join the service.  His mother, Heather, had to explain to the young Sliwinski that he’d have to wait until age eight before he could join the next closest thing – the Junior Marines Program.

According to their website, “The Young Marines is a youth education and service program for boys and girls, ages 8 through completion of high school. The Young Marines promotes the mental, moral, and physical development of its members. The program focuses on character building, leadership, and promotes a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.”

Luke, the youngest of six waited, however impatiently, until he could enlist and the now eleven year old who is about to enter sixth grade holds the rank of Sergeant and calls the Young Marines in his unit brothers. “I am the person I am today because of them.”   And that person is the youngest Spartans to take on our VA Super Spartan course alongside Team X-T.R.E.M.E. last Saturday, August 25th at Morven Park.  He toiled with the team for the 5.5 hours it took to complete finishing every obstacle and taking every step of the 10.5 miles course.  Says his mother Heather, “The accomplishment on Saturday blew me away.”  But her pride extends far beyond the Spartan course.  She goes on to say, “I am most proud of him humbleness through all of this.  He’s the kind of kid that stands up for what is right, even if he’s the only one standing.”

Luke was first introduced to Team X-T.R.E.M.E. and their mission in 2010 when he met USMC Cpl. Todd Love at Walter Reed Medical Center in Ward 57.  Cpl. Love, who also completed the Spartan Race on Saturday, was newly injured having lost both his legs above the knee and his left arm below the elbow in a violent IED explosion in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Heather Sliwinski

Heather Sliwinski recounts the moment that Luke first saw Todd, “Even as a case worker for injured soldiers for six years, to see him that soon after injury took my breath away.  Luke didn’t see it, he just saw a hero. He climbed right up onto the bed with him and started talking.”  That first meeting was an encounter that would turn into a lasting friendship.  ”They call each other brothers,” says Heather.  And what kind of Marine does Sliwinski want to become?  ”A Recon, just like Todd.”

And Luke has not only spent the last seven years visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed, he’s been raising money for them – nearly $10,000 worth.  And he’s not done.  ”I just want to do more.”  His appearance at the Spartan Race he hopes can draw attention to not only the team he loves, Team X-T.R.E.M.E. but to the work of Operation Ward 57 an organization he is closely connected to personally.  Known as “the amputee ward”, the orthopedic Ward 57 at WRAMC houses some of the most severely injured patients for weeks or even months and is a place that Sliwinski and his family have spent a great deal of time.   His plan until he’s old enough to join is to keep educating kids, raising money, and ultimately joining the Marines when he graduates high school.

Team X-T.R.E.M.E. member Todd Love says of Luke, “Luke has been with me since the beginning of my recovery. He is one of heroes, and we stay in touch with each other. I see him as a little brother but he full of what this country needs more of.”

When asked about how he feels about his heroes of Team X he said, “They are the most amazing people.  What they do, how they treat people.  They just keep fighting, even injured… Freedom isn’t free.”  And of his sandbag carry in Virginia he admits it was his biggest test of the day, the toughest obstacle for him to complete.  ”If they could do it, I didn’t want to let them down.  I didn’t want to take the easy way out.”

Spartan Race offers Kid’s Heats at every US Domestic Event.  Find one near you by clicking HERE and get you and your kids ages 4 – 13 signed up!  Proceeds to to benefit the Kids Fit Foundation

Find Luke Sliwinski on FB HERE.  To find out more about Team X-T.R.E.M.E. click HERE.

To find out more about the Young Marines Program, click HERE.

To find out more about Operation Ward 57, click HERE.

 

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by Carrie Adams

When Team X-T.R.E.M.E. approached the start line, dramatically proceeded by a bagpiper, and followed by members of their community, the crowd couldn’t help but be captivated by the scene.   They moved as a unit almost indecipherable in identity when donning their masks and kits.  With the rest of the festival spectators I watched them silently, and as they filed past me I glanced down and noticed arm patches with a single word on each, a “call sign” derived from the 14 leadership traits that designate the embodiment and symbolism of the mission to that indoctrinated team member.  They are worn by each athlete during the events.  As they passed I saw Endurance, Sacrifice, Vigilance, Honor, and Courage and then, Justice...  I paused when I saw the word.  Powerful and dignified, I was curious to know who had chosen that designation and for what purpose.

Earlier in the week I asked Team X founder Jeremy Soles about the patches.  He explained, “We each wear a name tape indicating our “call sign” on the shoulder of our uniforms.”  He went on to describe how the wounded athletes and the rest of the team are identified.  “In the mask, our Warriors Athletes are always identified as “Sacrifice”.  Out of the mask they are the only ones that we allow to reveal their identity publicly.”

The athletes that support the mission are always kept secret, staging and donning their masks and also de-masking in a private location.  Soles says, “This is keeping with the intent of the focus being on the wounded warrior and their empowerment instead of us as able body athletes.  In the mask we are all a collective, living, and breathing representation of each of these leadership traits.”

When the masks came off and the team entered the festival grounds I was finally able to see the faces of the team members.  Who we’d only known as “Justice” was at the back of the group, the 31 year old veteran of two deployments to OIF in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps was not only physically capable, mentally tough, and committed to the mission, but, I saw for the first time that Team X-T.R.E.M.E. member “Justice” also happens to be female.  The only female that ran with the Team in Virginia.

“Justice”
Photo courtesy of Kevin High Photography

Justice, whose real name will be withheld out of respect for the anonymity of the team and the commitment to their focus on their wounded comrades, has been a member of Team X since January when she went through the INDOC process.  She was asked to join after 48 grueling hours of physical and psychological testing.  The INDOC testing phase was the third and final stage of Team X-T.R.E.M.E.’s intense indoctrination process.  The first step Justice underwent was the submission of a two minute video.  Upon acceptance of the initial video submission there is an invitation to join the athlete community to show a candidate’s dedication to the organization by raising money and awareness.  If proven in the community, the candidates are invited to participate in the Richmond, VA 48 hour test.  The most recent INDOC with seven candidates actually resulted in no new team member invitations, a nod to the difficulty and exclusivity of the process.

Justice not only succeeded, she excelled, and has been a remarkable addition to the team.  For her first Team X event and weighing in at just over 120 pounds she carried 45% of her body weight for 26.2 miles through the New Mexico high desert while wearing a gas mask at the 2012 Bataan Death March.  At the Spartan Race in Leesburg she carried almost 90% of her body weight with wounded warrior athlete USMC Cpl. Todd Love on her back throughout the course rotating with the rest of the male-based team every half mile.  Not once did she miss her turn to carry the weight, not once did she falter or complain.

Justice isn’t a stranger to hard work.  After seeing part of an OCS exercise while interning for a government official, the South Carolina native knew that the Marines was the place for her.  And after joining the summer after 9/11 she ultimately would serve two deployments as a marine officer.  Her first deployment in 2004 was as an Air Support Control Officer near Ramadi, Iraq (Al Anbar province). Her job was to coordinate and direct fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft for troops in contact (air support) and MEDEVACs/CASEVACs.  Her second deployment was in 2006 to Al Qa’im, Iraq, near the Syrian border where she served as an Air Support Element Officer-in-Charge in support of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.

“It does not make physiological sense how she does it, how she endures…  that is why she is perfect for the Team X-T.R.E.M.E. mission,” says Soles.  “Her actions defy conscious logic and her power source is passion for her wounded brethren.”

When asked about the Spartan Race in Leesburg, VA and the incredible performance of the collective team she said, “You don’t think about it you just do it.  We had the equipment and we had each other.  There was never a point where we couldn’t get it done.  Time wasn’t a consideration, it was completion.  We completed our mission.”

In choosing her call sign, Justice stood out in her mind because of the veterans from past and current generations who haven’t seen the justice she believes they have deserved.  “So many wounded Veterans from so many generations haven’t seen justice to the extent we wish we could have provided them when they came home.”  She goes on to say, “That one we need to keep in the front of our minds; getting them the support that they deserve and are taken care of by a grateful nation.”

She says she was aware of the impact the team had on the crowds as they passed, but that it was emotional on many levels. “There were points where I was more aware of it than other times.” She paused, “When Todd climbed up the hill… and with everyone around the start and finish.  Hearing the cheering, the kids waving at us, people watching us pass by…  that by itself was exciting and motivating.  I wish I could take it all in, but it was almost sensory overload.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin High Photography

Justice will be back in the mask in a couple weeks at the Heartbreak Ridge half marathon at Camp Pendleton.   Her day job keeps her on the move as well so she strives for balance as she supports the team and the wounded warrior athletes.  Married to a former Naval officer, she stays active in her off time and is humble about what she’s done and will continue to do with her dedication to the mission of the Team.

Soles sums it up best when speaking of Justice, “Like the rest of the team, when pain veils itself over her, it is then that she finds the core of our mission and endures with one intent:  To honor the sacrifice of wounded warriors and to set a precedent that will be contagious to all who bear witness. ”

Photo courtesy of Kevin High Photography

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