An old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.
For John Bellona, a journey of over 4,000 miles began with the death of his best friend and college roommate, First Lieutenant Michael J. Cleary.
Motivated by 9/11 and the legacy of a Vietnam veteran father, “Mikey” Cleary joined the military just after he graduated from Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY, in 2003. He was killed in Iraq on December 20, 2005, just days before his one-year deployment ended, and weeks before his scheduled wedding to his childhood sweetheart, Erin.
The shock of Cleary’s death reverberated among those who knew and loved him. How could someone who had lived life so fully and had so much promise be taken from them? And yet, Bellona realized, his friend’s story is but one of many. All across America there are friends and families of fallen service members who are weighed down with unkept promises. Bellona wondered what he could do to help lift their burden.
The answer came to him after a sleepless night spent thinking about Cleary and a very early run along the Jersey shoreline. As he ran, Bellona looked across the river at the New York skyline, and the empty space where the Twin Towers once stood.
It mirrored the void within him. The fall of the World Trade Center precipitated the fall of over 4,000 of America’s service members.
Suddenly, an intuitive understanding came to him. He chose to run each day because for him it was a spiritual experience, a time of reflection and release; what better way to honor those who had fallen than to rise up and carry their legacy forward? So it was, from this early morning epiphany, “Run for the Fallen” became a reality.
With equal amounts of determination, intellect, and miracles, Bellona pulled together support for an eleven member running team and documentary crew. Michael Cleary’s fiancé is part of their team, a runner as well as director of media relations.
Their plan is to run one mile for every service member lost during Operation Iraqi Freedom; marking each mile with an American flag and a personalized card bearing the service member’s name. The cards were designed and produced by children in 22 schools, from Connecticut, to Indiana, to Hawaii.
The team began their journey on Flag Day, June 14, 2008. They started from Ft. Irwin, CA, which is not only the National Training Center for desert operations, but also the home of Painted Rocks, an inspirational landmark of large boulders painted with the unit crests of those who have trained there.
The team’s first marker was placed for one of the first soldiers to die in the Iraqi conflict: Major Jay T. Aubin, age 36, of Waterville, ME; and then the miles – and the names – continued. The run will conclude at Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday, August 24, over 4,000 miles from the beginning.
As Bellona writes, “…the run will stand as one large stitch spanning the width of the nation, coast to coast. The run is an active healing process, and the miles manifest themselves as healing stitches. One mile of sweat and pain to pay homage to one soldier’s life. It is through the embodiment of each mile that we reflect upon and activate the memory of those who gave their lives.”
With each placement, the entire team looks at the service member’s card, reads what is written, and then they cry out that person’s name.
One cannot help but believe that the calling out of that name produces a heavenly response. The chosen runner carries a large flag and each step of their mile is in honor of the designated service member.
Even as their journey began at a place of rocks, Bellona now says, “It is like a rock rolling down a mountain, gathering momentum as it goes.”
Indeed, it has built in both strength and influence as more and more Americans become aware of the Memorial Trail of flags posted along long stretches of highway.
The team covers approximately 50 miles a day, with the runners trading off every three miles. They ask that others along the route join in with them, or even run a mile for a soldier by themselves.
Becky Hughes, of Blanding, ran with the group through the community of Blanding, and then she ran a mile for a soldier along the highway before joining the group again as they ran through the neighboring community of Monticello.
“I cannot describe how it made me feel,” Becky said, choking up with emotion as she remembers the experience, “I haven’t lost anyone in the war, so I can’t imagine how it is for those who have. Still, I want to support the soldiers and their families. The run was really hard emotionally – harder than it was physically, and that took a lot out of me! – but I am so grateful to have had this experience.”
Shauna, one of the team members, echoed Becky’s sentiment when she said, “Running is the easy part. I knew I wanted to be a part of this when I read John’s advertisement for runners, but when I signed up for it, I had no idea what it would do to me. There is such a sense of connection- not only to those who have fallen, but with the people we meet along the way. This run won’t stop at the end of the road. I will never be able to go back to the person I was before we began this journey.”
The team finished their first thousand miles on July 1, near the Colorado border. John Bellona is accomplishing what he set out to do, which was to rekindle Mike’s spirit and offer others the opportunity to remember their loved ones.
Still, Bellona could recite the words of the poet, Robert Frost: “But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”