Running to remember: 2,500 Fort Lee community leaders honor fallen
September 24, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 24, 2012) -- Vivienne Wicks has never met 1st Lt. Ryan P. Jones, but she knows much about him.
"He was a joker," she said, "but he was a leader. He went to school to become an officer and he wanted to go much further with his career."
Furthermore, she said, "He was an old soul in a young man's body, and he wanted to do good."
The 1st Infantry Division Soldier did as much good in his 24 years of life as he could, said Wicks.
Jones and another Soldier were mortally wounded May 2, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq. Wicks said it's an obligation of the heart to honor his deeds.
"He's always in my thoughts," she said. "I think about him nearly every day."
Thoughts of Jones weighed on her heart more than usual on Saturday. She and more than 30 of her coworkers from Petersburg's Southside Regional Medical Center joined thousands more at Williams Stadium to remember fallen military members at the third annual Run for the Fallen, or RFTF, a remembrance event held all over the nation and in several other countries to honor those who lost their lives during the wars in Southwest Asia.
Fort Lee's version of RFTF drew a mix of supporters from throughout the Fort Lee community and the Tri-Cities. Participants ranged from those like the Southside group to the Dinwiddie (County) High School football team to active duty military members, Family members and throngs of advanced individual training students who lent an enthusiastic, vocal presence to the festivities.
Maj. Gen. Larry D. Wyche, the Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee commanding general, said he was wowed by the outpouring of support and the electric atmosphere.
"I was truly overwhelmed," Wyche said after he completed the run. "When you look at the support from the Patriot Guard (Riders), or PGR, the local community and the Fort Lee community, it was absolutely amazing."
The PGR is a motorcycle club that nurtures its proud reputation for escorting returning service members and military funeral processions.
Run for the Fallen began in 2008, three years after Jon Bellona's college roommate, 1st Lt. Michael J. Cleary, was killed in Iraq. An avid runner, Bellona gathered a group of fellow runners who endeavored to run a mile for every military member lost during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The inaugural run began at Fort Irwin, Calif., and concluded at Arlington National Cemetery located just outside the nation's capital. It was completed in 72 days and featured a staked American flag and personalized sign card at every mile along the way.
Angela Bellamy, Survivor Outreach Services coordinator at the Fort Lee Army Community Service, the event organizer, said Run for the Fallen is meant to help surviving families through their periods of grief.
"Our survivors want to remember," she said, "and they heal when they (do) remember."
Bellamy said there is plenty of affirmation concerning the event's viability.
"Some of my survivors came up to me this morning and hugged me and said, 'This means so much to us that we're remembering our child,'" she said. "I have gotten so many hugs today from these survivors. That's what this is all about -- remembering everyone who sacrificed for our freedom."
Although it was a remembrance event, RFTF was less of a solemn occasion and more of a festive one.
Christine Murphy, an SOS financial counselor who has worked extensively with survivors, said that is by design.
"The thing is, when you're going through grief, most survivors need something to lift them out of that solemn quiet," she said, referring to the event's tone. "They get enough of that. They need someone to reach out and pull them out of the dark spots they are already in."
On Saturday morning, it seemed hundreds of arms were collectively ready to lift survivors to heights of normalcy. Most of the participants -- runners and walkers -- donned T-shirts emblazoned with the images of deceased military members or wore bibs that featured names. The public address system blared patriotic music that competed with the vocalizations of units as they belted out choruses of "hooahs," Army running cadences or unit mottos at the call of their superiors. When the individual runners and units set out on the course staked with pictures of the fallen, the enthusiasm was at its height and the procession resembled a giant, uncoiling snake.
Despite the fact that participants were paying honor to those who lost their lives, there was an unmistakable energy in the air -- something along the lines of a celebration, said Shannon Cleary, 1st Lt. Cleary's older sister and one of the guest speakers.
"The hurt never goes away," she said after her speech, referring to the loss of a loved one. "There's a hole that can't be filled. With that said, to come out here and to see this many Soldiers who are out here to help us grieve ... if this helps one more, 10 more, a thousand more families who have lost (a loved one) .... yeah, my brother is still here."
While there were many survivors present who found ways around their loss, there were those who were just coming to grips. Danielle Ozbat, a spouse who lost her husband, Capt. Jesse A. Ozbat, in May, said she was reluctant to attend and had mixed feelings once present.
"It's helpful seeing all the people supporting us," she said, "but it's also bittersweet because I see his picture and it makes me sad."
Roughly 20 Ozbat family and friends, wearing T-shirts printed with Capt. Ozbat's image, were on hand for the occasion.
Billy Mills, head football coach at Dinwiddie High School, came to RFTF with nearly his entire team, which volunteered to accompany him. It came to honor 1st Lt. Stephen Chase Prasnicki, a former U.S. Military Academy quarterback who played for Mills at Rockbridge County High School and who was killed in June. He, like Danielle Ozbat, had conflicting emotions about being present but wanted to remember Prasnicki's qualities and share the story of his life with his players.
"He exemplified everything I wanted in a player," he said, "from his character, to his attitude to his unselfishness. I love all my players, but there's a handful that you use as examples to tell your team how to live their lives."
In some way, Mills and Wicks share similarities. They both attended RFTF because they wanted to remember a person, someone who possessed the qualities that pushed him to serve his country. They also have a desire to carry on someone's legacy. Mills wants his players to learn of Prasnicki's selflessness. Wicks has made it a point to honor Jones by helping to fulfill his wishes. She learned of his desires through a friendship she has maintained with his parents. Jones spelled them out in letter he wrote to them in the event he didn't return from war.
"The letter said to go and do good with the other wounded warriors and other service men and women," she said. "That's what they have done, and I can support them because they support everybody else even though they've lost a child."
Jones and another Soldier, Spc. Astor Sunsin-Pineda, were the victims of a roadside bomb on that fateful day in 2007. Two other Soldiers survived. Sgt. Andre Knight, Wicks' son, was one of them.