May 7, 2014
By T. Anthony Bell
FORT LEE, Va. (May 7, 2014) --Saturday's Run for the Fallen at Williams Stadium might challenge the notion that a make-up event frequently does not measure up to the luster and enthusiasm anticipated for the original.
RFTF, postponed last fall due to budget shortfalls, looked nothing like a rescheduled event, drawing a record 5,000 participants who ran and walked to honor service members who died while in uniform and to support family members dealing with losses.
"This is an absolutely great event," said Col. Paul K. Brooks, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Lee commander, during his remarks to open the event, the fourth held at Fort Lee. "This is a great day and a great way to honor and remember our fallen comrades."
Run for the Fallen began in 2008, three years after 1st Lt. Michael J. Cleary was killed in Iraq. his college roommate, an avid runner, organized a group of fellow runners who endeavored to run a mile for every military member lost during Operation Iraqi Freedom. RFTF is now an event that takes place at locations throughout the country as a tribute to all who died in uniform.
Maj. Gen. Larry Wyche, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, who briefly addressed the crowd, said those who sacrificed for the good of the nation deserve honor and remembrance.
"Think about what makes this country so great," he said. "…That didn't happen overnight. That happened because of the many sacrifices that have been made on the battlefields throughout the years. And I want you to reflect on that this morning because we will only continue to be the greatest Army and the greatest nation in the world as a result of those sacrifices."
Wyche was speaking to a number of surviving family members -- many of them first-time attendees -- wounded warriors, community members, volunteers, veterans and a few thousand military students attending the various schools here.
Bill Harness, a Hopewell Navy veteran who was attending with his wife, Kimberly, for the first time, said RFTF was an eye-opener."I am amazed that this many people are here," he said as the sound of military cadences echoed in the background. Kimberly, who lost her father Sgt. Kenneth Vore, during the Vietnam War, said the atmosphere was encouraging beyond her expectations. "I feel very supported," she said, filled with emotion and unable to continue.
Earlier, 30-year-old Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Andrew Coughlan took the podium as the guest speaker, sharing his story of tragic losses, his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and the struggles he endured while re-integrating himself back into civilian society. Noting the parents of one of his battle buddies took him as his son and helped him to recover, he encouraged those affected by war to be resourceful.
"…Don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and take on the little bit of healing that these families want to give us," he said to the military members. "The same thing goes for the parents, the loved ones -- don't be afraid to try and connect with the Soldiers, the Marines, the Sailors, the Airmen that your loved ones served with."
Unlike Memorial Day, which also honors the fallen and typically takes on a solemn tone, RFTF -- at least those held at Fort Lee -- have been characterized by energy, pride, and a spirit of resiliency and support.
Army Community Service Officer Stephanie Parker, whose agency organized the event through its Survivors Outreach Services division, has been a part of Run for the Fallen since the inaugural event in 2010. She said it derives its energy from the compassion of others.
"This event brings on a spirit of resiliency," she said. "It really gives you a charge that we have a purpose to stand, walk or run for those we are honoring through their service. You cannot avoid being warmhearted and empowered seeing service members running and the survivors smiling and allowing us to embrace them despite their tragic loss. It really is a community event, although it honors the military. We couldn't do it without everyone."
One of the volunteers, retired Army Maj. Bryan Bellamy, said the spirit of RFTF is so enduring and meaningful that no budget restraint or other event can prevent it from taking place.
"I don't think Fort Lee is going to turn their back on the survivors," he said. "They want to keep the memory alive. It was going to happen."
Command Sgt. Maj. Spencer Gray, a first-time participant, said RFTF sends a clear and compassionate message to family members: "We will never forget our fallen," said the Quartermaster Corps regimental CSM. "It's the most important message we can give as an Army."
That message thrust the civilian community into action when last year's furlough brought planning to a halt. Sponsors such as 1st Command, St. Leo University, Fort Lee Federal Credit Union, USA Discounters and USAA provided the major boosts. Various individuals -- those affiliated with Fort Lee and otherwise -- volunteered their time to set up tents and perform a myriad of other tasks associated with the operations. Members of the local Patriot Guard and American Legion Riders motorcycle clubs lent their support as well, bearing flags during formalities and escorting participants. All of this made military members like Pfc. Andres Rodriguez feel the full weight of reassurance that his efforts as a Soldier has the support of those who truly care.
"I feel very proud of the Army," said the Charlie Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion student. "It shows we care for the fallen and allows us to show our pride in those who fought for our country and who are not with us anymore. I think it is important to see how people commit to this. It's something beautiful to see. It makes me feel like I can count on these people; makes me think the Army is a really big family."