Inspiring Old Glory Relay will conclude 4,600-mile trek on Veterans Day at Westfield Brandon

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In California, a team from the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center drove four hours to help carry the U.S. flag from Laguna Beach to Oceanside.

In National City, Calif., outside San Diego, a group of Las Vegas residents ran with the flag just days after the Mandalay Bay shooting that took the lives of nearly 60 people. The group carried it across the state line and into Yuma, Ariz.

In Texas, they biked with the flag from the town of Fort Hancock to Van Horn. In Eunice, La., it arrived to a spirited welcome at VFW Post 3809.

In Gulf Breeze, elementary, middle and high school kids stepped outside of the classroom to wave at the runners and touch the flag. And for the second year in a row, the mayor of Crystal River will make a point to stage a festive welcome as this special version of the Stars and Stripes moves on to its final destination: Westfield Brandon.

It’s the Old Glory Relay and for the fourth consecutive year, Tampa-based nonprofit Team Red, White and Blue has made it its mission to create a unifying movement that touches communities all across the nation. This year, the route started in Seattle on Sept. 11 and will arrive to a special three-hour celebration in Brandon on Saturday, Veterans Day.

In 62 days, runners, bikers, hikers and walkers will have helped traverse the 4,600-mile course, carrying the 3- by 5-foot RePatriot Flag on a 5-foot, 14-ounce carbon pole. The flag itself actually took a pre-relay tour, with organizers sending it to Italy, Germany, Korea, Hawaii and Alaska.

“Our goal is to have 10,000 sets of hands touch it,” said relay director Donnie Starling. “It’s hard to count, but I think we’ve far exceeded that goal.”

The relay also emotionally touches participants and passers-by. Truckers honk when they see the flag. People stop and inquire when the relay passes down the road.

Starling’s favorite story from his four-year involvement with the cross-country effort involves a Vietnam veteran he came across on the backroads of Utah. The man stopped his SUV to ask about the flag. He drove away only to catch up with the group later and ask if he could carry it.

“We thought he would run a couple of hundred yards,” Starling said. “That gentleman ran four miles like he owned it. At the end, we sat around and he told stories about being deployed in Vietnam.

“It was very, very moving.”

The 2017 theme for the relay is unity, and Starling said they’ve aimed to replicate the moving moments captured in that Utah moment. He hasn’t traveled every mile — the relay rotates representatives every four to five days — but the Air Force veteran did run with the crew into Yuma, Ariz., just after the shooting.

That day meant a little more for Starling and the other relay staffers because they live in Las Vegas.

“It gave the five of us a chance to cry a little bit, hug a little bit, and love a little bit on our country,” Starling said.

The relay is an offshoot of Team Red, White and Blue, a nonprofit that strives to enrich the lives of veterans by bringing them together through physical activities, workouts and social outings. Starling said the joint investment in sweat equity often creates a deeper connection, one that goes beyond putting a soldier on a pedestal or bestowing pity because you think he’s broken.

The regiment has proven effective for a number of reasons, helping vets bond and creating a bridge between them and others who join in the activities, such as training and participating in a marathon. The nonprofit now has 130,000 members in 227 locations across the United States.

Many of those members participate in the relay as it moves from city to city, but it’s not limited to Team Red, White and Blue. Starling and other relay organizers move in advance of the relay, often registering participants and arranging support.

The experience never fails to impress.

“People get involved and run a few steps with the flag, it connects across generations and demographics,” Starling said. “Every time you put a flag in someone’s hand and say go run, you put a smile on their face.”

With Westfield, Microsoft, Amazon, Truecar and Starbucks among sponsors, the grand finale at Westfield Brandon should prove to be quite the event. The relay will move through Hillsborough County, including an anticipated trek down Bayshore Boulevard that Starling estimates will take place between 1 and 2 p.m.

The event is set for 5 p.m. with a parade at 5:30 p.m. at Westfield Brandon.

The patriotism and dedication of the Old Glory Relay and all of the runners involved in this 4,600 mile journey is extraordinary and incredibly moving,” said Westfield Brandon marketing director Dawn Arvidsen. “At Westfield Brandon, we are truly honored to be the last segment of the relay, to celebrate all of the runners who participated and connect our local active military and Veterans and their families to our community.”