Team Tillman Extreme to Complete the Bataan Death March

Blog | 03/05/2024

We recently talked with Jonnie Gilpen, a Tillman Scholar from the class of 2017 who has formed a team of 11 Tillman Scholars to participate in the renowned Bataan Death March. During our conversation, we discussed why Johnnie pulled this team together and how he and Tillman Scholars contribute to the Foundation’s mission.

What is the Bataan Death March? 

During World War II, 75,000 United States and Filipino soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces after months of battling in extreme climate conditions. The Bataan Memorial Death March was established in 1989 to honor this page in history. Today, the event attracts about 9,600 marchers from across the United States and several foreign countries, who can choose between two courses: a 14.2-mile and a 26.2-mile course.

Are you participating in this year’s race?

I am the team captain of a group of 11 Tillman Scholars called “Team Tillman Extreme.” On Saturday, March 16th,  we will participate in the 26.2-mile memorial race and have organized two five-person coed teams. One team, referred to as the Light team, is not “required” to carry a 35 lbs rucksack or backpack, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t packing heavy…while the other, called the Heavy team, is required to carry a 35 lbs “rucksack” along with all their water and other gear. In addition to the two teams, I will also serve as the Team Captain. We have been training hard for several months and are excited to participate in the race together.

Why did you bring together these Tillman Scholars to do this race?

I have had the idea since 2020 to do some extreme challenges with a group of my fellow Tillman Scholars. A few fellow scholars and I planned to field two teams of Tillman Scholars for Ecochallenge Patagonia in 2021, which was canceled due to COVID. In 2022, I registered for the Bataan Death March; unfortunately, the in-person race was canceled due to Ukraine. However, I was determined to complete the race, so I did it virtually in the mountains of Oklahoma in 9 hours and 34 minutes, carrying everything I needed, including food, water, and a 35-pound backpack. It was a moment like in Rocky Round 14, considering that in 2018, I still walked with a cane, back brace, and costume knee braces. After completing the race, I wanted to share the experience with a group, so I asked the Tillman Scholars and 10 veterans committed to joining me.

Who is on your team? 

A group of dedicated Tillman Scholars:

Eric Chastain, 2019 Tillman Scholar, Army; Christina Fishback, 2013 Tillman Scholar, Military Spouse; Barrett Howell, 2010 Tillman Scholar, Army; Thomas Hoyt, 2023 Tillman Scholar, Army; Safi Rauf, 2020 Tillman Scholar, Navy; Mia Renna, 2021 Tillman Scholar, Army; John Van Horn, 2012 Tillman Scholar, Air Force; Nate Webster, 2022 Tillman Scholar, Army; William Eisenhart, 2019 Tillman Scholar, Army; Jonathan Yellowhair, 2018 Tillman Scholar, Marine Corps; and me, Johnnie Gilpen Jr, 2017 Tillman Scholar, Navy 

What makes these experiences so special that you get to do it with fellow Tillman Scholars?

Both growth and bonding come through struggle – all but one are service members. Christina is a spouse who has endured deployments, so she understands suffering. This is an opportunity for us to grow individually by pushing ourselves to do something others think – frankly, we have lost our minds. Something worthy of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, and at the same time, we do it together, bonding – and tightening our friendships among our team – there is no growth without struggle. Out there on the trail, we are all scholars, suffering, bonding, and growing together. 

What is your/the team’s goal?

The goal is that everyone crosses the finish line as a group, has fun, shows others that you can accomplish extraordinary things as a team, and help raise $10,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation… Oh, the most important goal is not to die.

How has the Pat Tillman Foundation helped support you in your life and your career? 

The Pat Tillman Foundation (PTF) has become my second family. They understand my ideas, passion, and drive to be more than I am today. PTF has given me a platform to make a difference in my part of the world. Being a Tillman Scholar has opened doors that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Of course, I still have to produce quality work, but PTF’s support has made it possible. Thanks to PTF, I discovered my writing voice. It started with writing my application, continued with introductions to The War Horse Journal for my first reflection, then being accepted as a War Horse Writing Fellow, and now I have published my first book.

Where can people go to support/donate to your team, Tillman Extreme? 

Contribute to our fundraising efforts by donating to our secure online platform –

If you want to support the team, please annotate that in the notes section at checkout.