By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 25, 2008 - It started as a leap of faith, but more than 10 million steps later, a 10-man relay team arrived here, at what the memorial run's organizer called the most sacred place in America. "Run for the Fallen is a living memorial," Jon Bellona said. "It is not just dedicated to the more than 4,000 brave men and women who gave their lives, but to the families whose loved ones on active duty currently are in harm's way."
Run for the Fallen, inspired by Bellona's best friend and college roommate, Army 1st Lt. Michael J. Cleary, began on Flag Day, June 14, just outside the gates of Fort Irwin, Calif. Cleary, 24, was a member of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Benning, Ga., when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Dec. 20, 2005.
The mission was a simple one: to run one mile for every American servicemember killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Each mile was marked by a small American flag and a card honoring a servicemember -- "one mile of sweat and pain to pay homage to one soldier's life," the Run for the Fallen Web site says.
That mission was completed just outside the gates here yesterday under a brilliant blue sky. The healing process the run started, however, continued after the last mile was complete.
Those who participated in the final 10 kilometers of the run, as well as family and friends of fallen servicemembers, moved as a group to Section 60 inside the cemetery's gates. Section 60 is the portion of the cemetery dedicated to the fallen heroes of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
After an Army bugler played "Taps," those family and friends spent a moment visiting their fallen loved ones' graves, purging another small measure of grief.
Cleal Bradford, of Blanding, Utah, grandfather to 46 and great-grandfather to 41, was among them. His grandson, Army 1st Sgt. Nathan Winder, 32, was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) out of Fort Lewis, Wash., when he was killed June 26, 2007, by enemy small-arms fire in Diwaniyah, Iraq.
"This is my third time [to visit the grave] since the burial," Bradford said as he sat under a tree clutching a small American flag. "[Today] was beautiful, ... playing 'Taps.'"
Marianne Cleary, mother of the soldier who inspired the run, agreed.
"[I'm] overcome with what they've accomplished," she said. "What they've done is they've honored and they've remembered. To know that people are still honoring, and it's still going on [is reassuring]."
Cleary's sister, Shannon, of San Diego, ran as part of the relay team and had developed a personal connection to many of the names she saw chiseled into the headstones in Section 60.
"I'm going through here and I'm like, 'I ran his mile, and I ran her mile,'" she said. "People ask how you do it. You're thinking about Frederick for a mile. You're thinking about Russell for a mile."
And while she agreed the trek through the Mojave Desert was a hot one, "Nobody was shooting at us," she said.
Julie Jutras, an area resident, ran the final 10 kilometers in honor of her son. Army Pfc. Dillon Miles Jutras was killed in Iraq's Anbar province on Oct. 28, 2005, while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, from Fort Benning.
Jutras and a team that runs the Army 10-miler had heard about Run for the Fallen and began logging their training miles in honor of a fallen Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.
"We've run for about 1,800 people in our training miles," she said. "It won't happen before this year's Army 10-miler, but we're hoping to be able to cover every person that sacrificed."
Fallen Army Staff Sgt. Henry W. Linck's father claimed to have left his running days behind some 30 years ago. But Rick Linck traveled from Lebanon, Tenn., with his wife and younger son to participate in the day's events nonetheless.
The experience left his spirit buoyed.
"It showed me that some people still remember what our fallen heroes deserve," Linck said. "What better tribute [than] to make a run? It's honored my son. It's honored daughters, husbands, wives, sons, grandsons -- showing that we still do care."
Linck's son was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, on Dec. 7, 2006, 18 days before his 23rd birthday. He was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
As the last carnations and stones were placed at the headstones of friends and loved ones, the crowd began to dissipate with Bellona's earlier words still clear in their minds.
"While the run across America ... is over, the journey of honor and remembrance continues," he said. "It is here that now we walk, shoulder to shoulder, in tribute to the fallen."