GREENFIELD — Rick Wilcher loaded the weights into a camouflage backpack. Forty-five pounds to haul beneath a hot August sun, all the while thinking of his boy, making that same trek some 2,000 miles away.
There’s a final test every recruit of the United States Marine Corps must pass before they earn the title of Marine. It’s nicknamed “the crucible” — a grueling 54-hour obstacle course filled with mental and physical tests that mark the end of their training and their welcome into a brotherhood of warriors.
Parents across the country — anxiously waiting at home for their children to return from boot camp — light a candle or keep the lamps in their child’s empty bedroom lit during the three days that encompass the crucible, a tradition meant to acknowledge the hard work their sons or daughters have put in to achieve their goals.
That wasn’t enough for Wilcher; he wanted a taste of the grueling test his son, Dylan, was working to complete across the country Wednesday afternoon. So, the Greenfield father and police officer strapped a bag to his back and set off on a hike of his own Wednesday morning, hoping to recreate “the crucible” right about the time he knew his son was readying for the same march in the warm California sun.
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Rick Wilcher stepped onto the Pennsy Trail in Greenfield around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday and walked back and forth on the city pathway until he reached 13 miles just before 1 p.m.
His knees shook at times, but he pressed on, barely pausing even to take a sip of water.
It wasn’t his own journey but his son’s that was on his mind the whole time, he said; with each step, he felt connected to the little boy he’d raised who was now off across the country becoming a man.
Dylan Wilcher, 18, shipped out for Marine Corps boot camp just days after graduating from Greenfield-Central High School in June, finally achieving a goal he’d set for himself at the tender age of 5, his mother, Missy Wilcher said.
They’ve tried for years to pinpoint what it was that first piqued their son’s interest in the Marine Corps, Missy Wilcher said, but it’s never been clear.
Perhaps the stories he heard growing up of other relatives’ times in the service made him long to put on the uniform. Or maybe it was the sense of patriotism and civil service the Wilchers have tried so hard to instill in their three children.
They’ve done their best to lead by example, Missy said.
Rich Wilcher is a lieutenant with the Greenfield Police Department, overseeing the third shift of patrol officers. Missy Wilcher works as an officer in the Hancock County Jail. And so many more of their family members work within the county’s other law enforcement agencies, dedicating their lives to public services.
Tyler Wilcher, 22, Dylan’s older brother, enlisted in the United States Army a few years ago and is currently stationed in South Korea.
Missy Wilcher joked her sons often tease each other about their military rivalry; it took all of the aspiring Marine’s energy to wear an Army T-shirt to support his older brother when he graduated from basic training as a soldier a year ago, she recalled with a laugh.
But nothing could stifle Dylan’s desire to become a Marine, the Wilchers said.
Throughout his senior year of high school, Dylan attended workout sessions and other team-building programs with young men from around Central Indiana who planned to join up as well, his mother said. He learned about “the crucible” early on, knew it was the final test separating him from that title he craved.
The crucible is the final phase of Marine Corps recruit training, the final step before their graduation ceremony and seeing families again for the first time in weeks, the branch’s recruitment website states.
With little food and sleep, the recruits must use teamwork to tackle problem-solving exercises and physical challenges aimed to test what they’ve learned during their training. The obstacle course spans 40 miles and ends with a 9-mile trek up a treacherous hill.
“It’s really hard knowing that your kid is doing that,” Missy Wilcher said, wiping a tear from her eye.
As Dylan trained before heading off to boot camp, his father often tagged along; he was there to be an encourager and friend, someone who could challenge Dylan, even compete with him, to ensure the boy pushed himself to the fullest extent.
And Rick Wilcher chose to walk 31,700 steps Wednesday for the same reason, he said: he promised he’d be by his son’s side in spirit — and he wasn’t about to break that promise at the final stretch.
So for four hours, Rick Wilcher pounded the deep black pavement of the Pennsy Trail.
The Wilchers leave for California next week to see their son for the first time since he left in early June. They’ve had no more than a two-minute phone call with him over these last three months, and they’re eager to see their son and celebrate his accomplishments.
Rick Wilcher said he’s sure his son will tease him about the breaks Dad had to take or the times he had to remove the weight on his back, certain his son will remind him he didn’t have the same luxury.
Rick Wilcher wasn’t out for encouragement; he shared his plans for the walk with very few people. But a handful of family members and a few Greenfield police officers turned out anyway.
“He loves those kids a lot,” said Brian Guinn, a captain for the Greenfield Police Department, watching with a smile as his friend walked by.
The well-wishers met him along the path to offer an encouraging word or wave, watching as a father tried to make his children as proud of him as he is of them.