Updated: Jun 2, 2022
What is a battle buddy? The battle buddy system teaches Soldiers how to work together as a team and how to look out for fellow Soldiers at all times, according to Sgt. 1st Class Casey Vanzant, A Company, 1st Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment platoon sergeant. (army.mil)
I remember in basic training getting paired up with a guy from my unit as battle buddies. We did everything together, put our tents up, helped each other train, do day to day stuff in the field, and it was emphasized so much that it became the norm for everyone to have one in the Army. It was life, you were taught to depend on another soldier to have your back and you have theirs, which could mean life or death in the right situation.
John was definitely my battle buddy, but by choice. When you get out of the military, you always seem to be missing something, it's a void left from losing the camaraderie you had while serving. I remember meeting him at the Hotter Than Hell 100 bicycle ride in Witchita Falls, Texas several years ago. He needed a place to sleep because he was sleeping in his pickup the night before and someone kept him up "playing scales on a saxophone all night" according to John. We started riding bikes together soon after that and spent who knows how many hours together on rides and trips. John was more than a battle buddy; he is one of the best friends I'll have in my life. He taught me the real meaning of battle buddy and we had each other's back no matter what the situation, and we got in some situations for sure. I have so many "No shit, there we were" stories with that guy it is crazy. I could literally write a book on my adventures with him.
He called me "Sarge", which was a term of endearment to anyone that really knew him. He was an infantry officer and was very fond of the "Sergeants" he served with. Although you had to pay attention to his stories because he called all ranks sergeant from a buck sergeant to a 1st sergeant and almost all of them seemed larger than life in his stories.
John had retired from both the Army and the Border Patrol. While serving in the Army he was deployed to Vietnam and was and Airborne Ranger. Truly an American bad ass. He could speak Spanish better than anyone I had ever met and loved the Border Patrol. He participated and supported several veteran organizations after retirement as well. He truly served his country his entire life.
We did everything from "Hell Week" in the spring where we rode 500-700 miles in a week for training and fun to racing ultra-distance races, veterans' rides and finally bikepacking. Two years in a row we won the Texas Ultra Cup 2 person series overall for the mixed 12 and 24 hour categories. Heck, I've seen John out ride 20 something year old guys like they were nothing. He would go out and do a 200k for a normal training ride. He told me one time that while in his 40's he ran marathon races and his best time was 2:20:00. That's amazing, even by today's standards. That is almost pro level speed.
About a year before we did the New Mexico Off Road Runner the first time, I was thinking about the next adventure and wanted to do the Trans America Bike Race. It was a cross country bike race from Oregon to Virginia where you basically are bikepacking on a road bike. I met Mick and he introduced me to bikepacking and I decided to do the Off Road Runner and John reluctantly agreed to do it instead of the Trans America.
That May, we did what John called " The Ride of a Lifetime" and looking back I think he knew his health was failing. When we were on the ride, he was strong, but he had a few issues that were out of sorts. His ankles would swell and we thought it was the altitude, or he would have a hard time getting going and we figured he needed to eat more and we would stop and find a place to get a good meal if possible. He made it through, kicked our ass a few days even. That ride was amazing, we told stories around the campfires, John had us rolling with stories of his Army days and it really was an amazing adventure and time for sure. It ended up being his last ride as his health started failing and the doctors told him to quit riding after a road bike crash due to heart problems.
That Christmas Eve, I was working in the backyard when I got a text from his wife that she had found John dead that morning. He had died peacefully in his sleep. I couldn't believe it; he had just texted me the day before while he was out scouting a bikepacking route for the Trail Warrior Project. I didn't reply because I was busy and planned on doing it the next day. I can tell you right now that as an adult I have cried like maybe 4 times and one of them was when John died.
On the last New Mexico Off Road Runner, we buried John's ashes under a large pine tree on top of a mountain and hung his Vietnam issued P38 and Airborne patch in the tree above it. It was more personal than his government funeral service at the Ft. Bliss National Cemetery a year and a half before. I finally felt like I got to say goodbye and pay him the respect he deserved in a way fitting our friendship.
Miss ya brother,