As the final team of runners approached the Old Post Chapel at Virginia’s Fort Myer, Gold Star family members cheered, hugged and cried, waving flags and wearing t-shirts with the names of their fallen loved ones across them.
So began the final stages of a cross country memorial relay run, aptly named the Run for the Fallen.
The runners, dripping with sweat, came to a halt at an Arlington National Cemetery gate. They presented the colors – four flags participants had carried with them from the run’s beginning, some 2,500 miles away.
Then, a U.S. Marine read a list of names of those recently killed fighting in the War on Terror.
After eyes were dried, families hugged and thanked the runners who had just arrived. The entire group then set out on the final mile – a somber trek across Arlington National Cemetery to Section 60, where many of their family members have been laid to rest.
The run began on April 7, 2018 at Fort Irwin, an Army base situated between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The route wound through 19 states and almost 6,000 miles.
Each mile along the route was dedicated to specific servicemembers who died over the past 18 years. Deceased American troops, beginning with those killed in the USS Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2000, were honored over the course of the run.
Their names were recognized in chronological order according to their date of death.
Runners stopped for a few minutes each mile to read the names of servicemembers being honored on that stretch of the journey. After covering about 50 miles, each day concluded with a ceremony to again remember each servicemember recognized during that day’s run.
In all, over 500 runners participated in the relay, and 20,067 names were read, included two very recent additions to the list, that of Army Pvt. Jeremy J. Wells and Army veteran Heather Watkins. Wells died as a result of a training mishap at Fort Campbell on Wednesday. Watkins died July 31.
Donald Gillespie was part of the two years of planning as the runner coordinator. His job was to make sure there were enough runners at every point along the route from California. To him, it is clear why the run is so important.
“Everybody needs to experience this. If you’ve never experienced a Run for the Fallen, you need to go out to a marker and stand and listen to a name being read, or talk to a Gold Star family and see how important it is.” Gillespie said. “We had families flying from California into Kentucky just to stand for 30 seconds to hear their son or daughter’s name. It means something.”
After completing the final leg of the journey, runners mingled with Gold Star families and supporters. Colton Compton, of Indiana, said he had run most of the route through Indiana, and then joined the team again to run through North Carolina and Virginia.
In total, Compton ran close to 300 miles in 21 days, but he said, “It’s not about how many miles we ran. It’s about every single person who we ran for on that mile. I don’t think of it as I ran so many miles. I think of it as that many miles for each hero.”
© 2018 the Stars and Stripes
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