Runners mark miles for fallen troops
By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
For every mile that Jon Bellona and his friends run this summer, they carry forward the memory of a young man or woman who died in Iraq.
Members of their group, Run for the Fallen, are taking turns running 4,100 miles from Fort Irwin, Calif., to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. At each mile, they plant a U.S. flag and a placard in chronological order for every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who has died.
“It’s one thing to drive a mile, another to bike it and one more to actually put one foot in front of the other … to have that space and really reflect on another individual,” Bellona says.
The idea came to him two years ago as he ran in Jersey City, and looked at the New York skyline. Five years earlier, he and his roommate, Mike Cleary of Dallas, Pa., had sat together in their Hamilton College dorm room and watched the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ destruction.
Cleary joined the Army after graduation. On Dec. 20, 2005, in Taji, Iraq, he had just helped destroy a bomb factory when he was killed by a roadside bomb.
Bellona, 26, was working at a recording studio when he left to plan the run.
It began June 14, Flag Day. Seven runners have been joined by local running clubs and relatives of servicemembers who died. People in 28 states have signed up for local runs on Aug. 24, the day the run ends in Arlington.
Don Tolbert, 48, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, ran 13 miles starting in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The day began at 4:30 a.m. with the reading of 65 names and a moment of silence.
Each placement of a placard brought tears. “It’s a life story of someone you don’t know but that you honor,” he says.
The placards were made by students in 22 schools around the country.
Mary Ward, 49, a teacher at Western Alamance High School in Elon, N.C., organized students to make placards. One was a drawing of a soldier and his wife and child, another had a pickup with the Marine Corps emblem in a window.
Reading the placards “was almost too much to take,” Ward says. Her son, Sean, 25, served twice in Iraq and is now in Afghanistan with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
In Big Bear Lake, Calif., Joe and Laura Landaker invited the runners to their home.
Their son, Marine 1st Lt. Jared Landaker, 25, was killed in Anbar province on Feb. 7, 2007, while piloting a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter on a blood delivery mission. His flag will be planted Aug. 5 in Noah, Tenn.
His mother says, “I hope someone is there Aug. 5 to read my son’s legacy.”