Marching On

  • Published
  • By Josh Plueger
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Beneath a golden canopy of fall foliage, Jim and Sheila Goeltz stroll through a tree-lined corridor. Underneath their feet lies a brick red running track, which encircles the historic parade grounds of Offutt Air Force Base.  Step-by-step and side-by-side they move steadily through the still afternoon air.  Their synced strides are a result of 44 years walking in tandem with one other.  This simple gesture became a multi-continental venture when they came across the budding sport of Volksmarching while stationed in Germany in 1971.

From 1950-1980, Jim served in the United States Army.  The retired command sergeant major spent most of his career overseas covering numerous countries in the pacific theatre as well as the Middle East, Africa and Europe.  Upon retirement, his service to his country hadn't even reached its halfway point.  In 1983, he began volunteering at Offutt's Retiree Activities Office.  His wife wasn't far behind him. After completing her teaching career, spanning almost as many countries as her husband's duty stations, she began volunteering at the base Thrift Shop and has been doing so for the past 20 years.

It was a chance encounter when a soldier from Ashland, Wisconsin, came across a school teacher, enroute from California to Iowa Falls, Iowa, at a train station in Denver.  The serendipitous event at the station was the beginning of years of correspondence between Jim and Sheila which finally culminated in the two getting married in February of 1956.  It would be on one of his four tours to Germany where the two would officially take their first steps together as Volksmarchers.

Sheila was intrigued by an ad in the Stars and Stripes publication about a 13K walk through the foothills of the Spessart Mountain range.  The Bavarian range has been the fodder for many a fairy tale such as Snow White, who has a trail in her namesake. 

"Our first volksmarch was in September 1971 in Gelnhausen, Germany," Jim said. "It was a 13k (and) it was a tough walk...but from then on we continued on."

Jim, who was a first sergeant at this juncture of his career, saw the Volksmarch as a great opportunity for the men in his unit. He rounded up roughly 20 American soldiers to participate in the walk, garnering the "Largest Military Group" trophy for the event.  That walk was the first of more than 1,000 to come.  Sheila and Jim were hooked.

Volksmarching is just one leg of a larger entity known as Volksporting.  Today's Volksports, meaning "sport of the people," is a participation sport that shed its uber competitive roots during its infancy in the mid-60s.  Walking, bicycling, swimming and cross-country skiing comprise the four pillars.  The International Federation of Popular Sports, or Internationaler Volkssportverband, was established in 1968 and includes 17 participating nations around the world.  The aim of the organization is to encourage people to participate in non-competitive outdoor sports in order to promote public health and foster international peace.

Due to its popularity among service men and women, it was only a matter of time before clubs started to spring up in the United States.  Today the American Volkssport Association, or AVA, has clubs in all 50 states boasting thousands of members and events.

In order to gain credit for the events, one must officially register into the IVV's International Achievement Awards Program and events are logged into an Event Record Book.  Achievement awards are earned as people complete officially sanctioned events.  The first milestone is 10 events.  Jim and Sheila have recently accomplished their 1,000th walk.  To celebrate this milestone, they flew back to Germany where they started this journey together.  

"When we completed our 1000th Volksmarch, it was such a thrill to accomplish this in Germany where we began our journey in 1971," Sheila said.
"My greatest joy Volksmarching was having our son Paul join us in Munich," Sheila added.

Germany wasn't the only continent the globetrotting wanderers walked trails on during their journey to the 1,000 event marker.

"We have been on overseas volksmarching trips with the Des Moines club to New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, the United Kingdom, and Iceland, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland," Jim said.

Though neither one can pin point a favorite walk, they both seem to agree that Europe was host to most of their favorites while also naming several in the Omaha area. Locally speaking, Sheila highlighted Chalco hills while Jim noted Fremont Lakes.

Perhaps coming up with a singular trail is a moot point.  For the couple, it was the people they meet along the journey that made the walks memorable.  It was the bond with fellow Volksmarchers where the real joy was found.  It was the community they become a part of.  It was the matching maroon shirts with their trailblazers' logo on it.  It was the hot coffee sipped at rendezvous points on cool fall mornings while watching fellow marchers complete their walks.  Those were the accompanying details that really made the walks special.

But the best of all was the impression left on Jim and Sheila's relationship of almost 60 years.

"Walking has definitely cemented our relationship with one another," he added.

It has been a 539 month-long journey to earning their 1,000th event pin, one that now accompanies the numerous other accomplishment pins adorning their guidon-like pennant. Combined they memorialize four decades of walks.  But, this wasn't the culmination of their Volksmarching adventures, rather it was just another event recorded in their log as they show no signs of stopping or slowing down.