On December 8th, 2011, six members of Team Red, White & Blue, set out to relay-run the 150 miles from the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA to honor the 143 Annapolis and West Point graduates killed in the line of duty since 9/11.
As I got out of the car, sun setting on a 25 degree December evening in Shanksville, PA the six of us crunched our way across the snow covered path to the site of the Flight 93 memorial. Still coming out of our been-driving-too-long haze as we approached the 40 white polished marble slats, I knew in my mind what I was walking up to, but didn’t comprehend how much it would mean to finally be there and experience it. It was the names that got to me: Christian Adams; Lorraine G. Bay; Todd Beamer. It was the realization that I was on hallowed ground, the final resting place of the “Let’s Roll” men, the first offensive action in the war that has become the single central theme of my 20s and 30s. As we started off from the memorial that night, the mood was somber, one of respect, and a glint of awareness of a greater purpose for our journey.
The six of us ran through the night, one hour at a time, passing off “Old Glory” each time, and encouraging each other. We had two cars, with three runners each, meaning the “off duty” car had some time to grab food and water, and get some rest in between runs. We were friends with a shared military background who had not seen each other in a long time, and so our conversation in the car usually turned to family, “Glory days” stories, or how West Point has changed since our time. When it was my turn to run, though, my thoughts turned to the 143 Academy graduates killed in the line of duty since 9/11. Several were my friends, and all were men and women cut from the same cloth; humble servants who paid the last full measure of devotion, voluntarily, for the country they served. I was reminded of my charge to care for their families, for their widows and orphans. To make sure the spouses and children hear the stories of heroics to get through the rough times, and when old enough, the stories of the service member’s depth of character, complete with flaws, to unlock for them the richness of their loved one’s humanity. As cold as the night wind was while I carried the flag down those snow dressed back-country roads, it was comforting to spend time with my thoughts, and to know that I haven’t forgotten.
Eventually the sun rose, thawing our frosty faces and waking a slumbering America. It was refreshing to hear the support from passers by (we took the liberty of assuming all honks were affirmative) as we ran our flag down I-70 into Pennsylvania and Maryland. It was a welcome perspective to see the countryside; so much is missed in a climate-controlled car at 60 miles per hour with Bluetooth and six cup holders. With a steady pace and resolve, we continued to run our hour-long legs, moving our team and the flag on towards Washington D.C.
As we crossed into D.C., we started running in pairs, both for safety in crossing roads (the flag can block the runner from seeing cross-traffic), and to fit the other four people in a single car. We got all kinds of greetings from our countrymen, mostly positive, others frustrated that our 7:30 minute pace was faster than their commute down Wisconsin Avenue. We crossed the Potomac, rallied our group at the iconic monument to four Marines planting the American Flag at Iwo Jima. From here we set off as a group of six on our final leg to Arlington National Cemetery. Tired from 20 hours of running and driving, we were again struck with a dose of awareness when we turned the last corner, confronted with the expanse of evenly spaced resting places for two centuries of American Heroes. Just like the Shanksville memorial, even when you know they are coming, the place takes you. Here we were, thinking we were “done with our mission”, when the thousands of souls resting in front of us reminded us we were not. Here is when the picture first painted some 150 miles away in a Pennsylvania field came into full view; ours was the path of the American Warrior since 9/11. Starting around 9 AM in the coach section of Flight 93, and continuing through the rescue efforts of the twin towers, and on to Iraq and Afghanistan, a small percentage of Americans have continuously fought against that which threatens our life and liberty. We started in the place where those first chosen perished, and ended at the present and future resting place of Military members who carry the torch from that day forth.
Our journey started off as a way to honor the 143 Academy graduates that have died since 9/11. Somewhere along the way we came to realize that it was for more than just this, many have borne a servant’s yoke on behalf of this country. What we realized is that it was a tribute meant for all those who serve in our common defense. It was a tribute for those who understand that leadership is a position of servitude. It was a tribute for leaders who understand the only sufficient reward for their service, is the intrinsic reward of service itself. It is in these men and women for whom we honor the past, to whom we give thanks for the present, and in whom we hope for the future.
It’s Our Turn!