WASHINGTON — A group of runners has been engaged in a 6,000-mile run to pay tribute to fallen soldiers since April, and they’re getting ready to finish up in Arlington, Virginia.
America’s Run for the Fallen is a relay run that sees teams of runners jog between roadside markers placed at 1-mile intervals. The markers each represent a date between Oct. 12, 2000 (the day the USS Cole was bombed and, in the organizers’ words, the beginning of the War on Terror) and today.
At each marker, the runners and support crew pause to read the names of the military members who died while serving or as a result of serving on the date represented by the marker.
Organizers said they have 20,000 names to get through. They started April 7 in Fort Irwin, California, and will hit Arlington on Aug. 1, finishing the run Aug. 5 in Arlington National Cemetery.
Don Gillespie, of Indiana, is the runners’ coordinator, and he said that the experience is “a toll” but well worth it.
Some states, including Virginia, have had state-level runs for several years, but this is the first time this event has existed on this level. They’ll have been through 19 states by the time they’re done Sunday.
The organizers have been working on the run for two years, Gillespie said, and his main challenge has been working out how to get runners to sometimes-remote starting points and then back to their cars, if not their homes.
They’ve been short on runners in a few places, and Gillespie himself, whose cousin was killed in 2003, has had to head out to various spots to keep it going. Runners have had to sleep on the side of the road a few times, he said.
But, he’s had plenty of inspired assistance. Gillespie told the story of a young woman from North Carolina who flew out to California for the start of the run, went home, and then told Gillespie she had quit her job, put her belongings in storage and was joining the run for the duration.
“She doesn’t even have a place to live now,” Gillespie said.
The run isn’t designed to raise money or to advocate for a particular group or point of view — it’s the simple bearing of witness.
“We want to recognize Gold Star families and let them know that their son or daughter did not die in vain,” Gillespie said.
He recalls that run founder George Lutz, of Virginia, whose son was killed in Iraq, said, “You can die two deaths — one’s the physical death, and the other is when they forget to say your name.”
In his first Indiana run, in 2015, Gillespie got to the first mile marker to find a family holding a picture of their son. At the second, he found two little girls — one with a picture of the serviceman, the other with a sign saying, “We miss our Daddy.”
“If that doesn’t tear you up, there’s nothing that’s going to tear you up. … It’s pretty easy to run these miles, because we know what we’re doing it for.”
On the nationwide run, Gillespie said, “We’ve had people from all over this country fly in to their marker.”
Recently, a pair of families from Texas and California whose sons had died the same day flew to North Carolina to be at their sons’ marker and to run the preceding mile toward it.
“That’s a big sacrifice, to come across the country just to hear 30 seconds of your son’s name being read,” Gillespie said.