By Terrance BellMay 15, 2019
FORT LEE, Va. -- Capt. Andrew "Drew" Ross was destined to wear a military uniform.
His great uncle Bobby Ross served in the Army and once coached at the U.S. Military Academy. His father was an Air Force veteran who was employed at Lexington's Virginia Military Institute.
"When he hit 13 or 14 years old, he let us know in some way, shape or form he was going to serve his country," said his mother Beth Ross. "He already knew."
Drew made the ultimate sacrifice Nov. 27, 2018, when he was killed during an enemy attack in Afghanistan. The 29-year-old's mother was among dozens of Gold Star Family members present at a nearly filled-to-capacity Williams Stadium Saturday - the site of Fort Lee's annual Run for the Fallen, an observance to honor and remember those like Capt. Ross who served and gave up their lives as members of the military.
"This was an awesome experience," said Ross following the ninth annual event hosted by Army Community Service's Survivor Outreach program. "The survivor's lap was very powerful for me; very moving."
Serving as the kickoff for the walks and runs ranging from 1-to-5 miles, the survivor's lap is, without doubt, the solemnest moment of the day's agenda. During the proceedings, survivors walk around the stadium track holding banners depicting the faces and names of loved ones. As a matter of tradition, the crowds respectfully applaud and military members quietly salute as the honorees walk by.
Prior to the survivor's lap, the crowd heard speeches by several individuals including Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and Capt. Christopher Lancia, an Army Logistics University instructor and member of the veterans enrichment organization - Team Red, White and Blue. Lancia, a guest-speaker replacement, wasted no time in paying tribute to the families in the crowd who had endured the loss of their loved ones.
"We are humbled by your sacrifice, and we thank you for your acts of strength and courage during a time shown to be the most difficult a family can imagine," he said. "Thank you for helping us ensure the sacrifice by your loved one is not forgotten."
Reminders of fallen service members could be seen wherever participants looked. In addition to the personalized banners on display inside the stadium, the run/walk course was dotted with small signs showing pictures and names of those troops. Runners wore bibs with a space left blank to write in anyone they wanted to honor.
"Our goal is to educate everyone on the importance of honoring and remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country," said Angela Bellamy, SOS coordinator and one of the event's organizers. "We also want to let survivors know we honor them for the sacrifice their families have made - we will never forget."
Ross, a resident of Glen Allen who was attending for the first time, remembered her son as a practical joker, wood worker and fitness enthusiast. First and foremost, however, he was someone serious about military service.
"He loved his job, and when he became a Green Beret, really believed in what he was doing," she said of the Soldier who was on his second deployment when he was killed. "He died doing what he believed in and what he loved."
Addressing survivors directly during his speech, Lancia said loss can never be understated and those left behind are likely to face the difficulty of trying to cope.
"They left behind holes in their families that can and will never be filled," he said. "Medals and accolades can never replace flesh and blood."
Milinda Jefferson, representing brother-in-law Staff Sgt. LeRoy Alexander, drove here the morning of the event from Dale City with a relative and friend. She has attended in the past and said the occasion is a healing opportunity that is difficult to pass up.
"We never had a homecoming," she said of Alexander's death in 2005. "My brother was supposed to come home. He had only two more weeks (remaining on his tour in Afghanistan). My sister was five months pregnant with twins. To see the people applauding (in Williams Stadium) while holding and waving flags and saluting us ... and they didn't even know us. I will never forget this feeling."
The event was touching to others as well. The hundreds of advanced individual training troops who voluntarily attended were presented with thoughts of what it means to wear the uniform and the notion of their own mortality.
"I sort of understood the price that might have to be paid when I signed up for this, but I think coming to the event makes it even more real because you see pictures of people who have actually passed away serving the country," said 26-year-old Spc. Ariel Siekawitch, Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion.
The Yuma, Colo., native wore the name of a noncommissioned officer she knew little about. Ultimately for her and others, the symbolism of the occasion outshined knowledge of personal details. "Giving your life is the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "The greatest thing to do for another person is to give up your life to save them."
First Sgt. Sidney Babineaux Jr., the senior enlisted leader for Charlie Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion, wore on his bib the name of Col. Gregory S. Townsend, the former 23rd QM Brigade commander who died recently. His thoughts also were heavy for an AIT Soldier who died three years ago. Babineaux said he was "standing in" for his battle buddies.
"I am here because those Soldiers are not here to represent themselves," he said. "Every year at this time I get truly emotional because I have lost other battle buddies over the past 19 years. There are Soldiers still here today they have inspired."
Run for the Fallen events take place throughout the country each year. It is part of a national, nonprofit initiative that started in 2007 when a group of civilians decided to run from Fort Irwin, Calif., to Arlington National Cemetery. The Fort Lee observance Saturday drew more than 7,500 participants who ran or walked over 21,000 miles.