NAVARRE — Sean Flynn knew his brother, Liam, who came from Ireland to the United States several months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on this country, had become a U.S. Marine.
What he and his family didn't know, though, is that Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn had become a special kind of Marine — a sniper in the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
And what they wouldn't know, at least not until after it happened, was that on the night of March 10, 2015, Staff Sgt. Flynn was among the seven Marines and four Louisiana National Guard troops who died when their Black Hawk helicopter went down in Santa Rosa Sound during a training exercise conducted in heavy fog.
Even when he did know, Sean Flynn initially couldn't believe his brother had perished.
"I just refused ... ," Flynn said haltingly. "If anyone could have got out, it was him."
But on Friday morning, Flynn was among the dozens of people who gathered around a Navarre memorial to the crew of MOJO 69 at the end of an annual 209-mile ruck march from Auburn University with Navy ROTC students and others who had joined the cause to raise money for the families of fallen Marine Raiders.
Flynn had found out about the ruck online in Ireland, and made the trip to the United States to walk in memory of his brother.
"The main thing I remember is his smile," Flynn said.
Because of his work as a Marine, Staff Sgt. Flynn had missed a number of family events in Ireland, which was something of a mystery to family members.
"We didn't see him for six or seven years," Flynn said.
But, he quickly added, by walking with the active-duty personnel, the ROTC cadets and veterans who participated in Rucking for Raiders, he began to appreciate the special bond that his younger brother must have forged with his military family.
"Seeing the guys out here, you understand," Flynn said. "I'll be back next year."
Among the veterans participating in this year's Rucking for Raiders was Jeff Case, who served in the Marines from 2000-2004. Now working as a firefighter in Mississippi, the contents of Case's backpack included an American flag that had draped the casket of one of the 15 Marines and one Navy sailor who died in the 2017 crash of a C-130 in Mississippi. Case had stood guard over the Marines and sailor at a funeral home in the hours after the crash.
Like Flynn, Case found out about Rucking for Raiders online, and at the end of the march he gave the flag to the group.
"This is where it needs to stay ... not on my wall," Case said after donating the flag. Like Flynn, Case plans to be back for next year's ruck. "I will be here," he said emphatically.
Friday marked the completion of the third Rucking for Raiders. For each of those three years the ruck has been organized under the leadership of active-duty Marine Corps Lt. Daniel Campbell, who started the march while a staff sergeant attending Auburn University.
"It's not a full-time job, but you have to be invested in it," Campbell said Friday morning in Navarre. The satisfaction in the work, Campbell said, comes from "just knowing that these families are taken care of."
In each of its three years, Rucking for Raiders has exceeded its fundraising goals. The first ruck raised $11,000, last year's event raised $13,000, and this year's ruck is on track to raise at least $17,000, Campbell said.
Campbell is stepping down as organizer of Rucking for Raiders, and has handed the reins to Marine Staff Sgt. Brandon Kay, who is in the ROTC commissioning program at Auburn.
"It's going to be quite the challenge," Kay said. "Every year you want to get bigger and better."
The monument where the march ends each year, featuring a bald eagle swooping onto a waving American flag, with 11 stars commemorating the victims of the MOJO 69 crash, was unveiled in 2016. Members of Leadership Santa Rosa Class 29, sponsored by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, came up with the idea for the memorial and raised more than $150,000 to make it a reality.
On hand for the end of the ruck was Mike Simpson, part of the group that raised money for the memorial and had refreshments ready for the tired participants.
"The little bit we do for them is nothing," Simpson said.