The morning was gray and overcast as the wind brought a much needed break from the South Carolina heat Sept. 14 at Hilton Field. Thousands gathered on the field to honor their Family members and Soldiers who have lost their lives during the War on Terror at the annual Fort Jackson Run for the Fallen.

Fort Jackson senior leadership along with the Adjutant General of South Carolina, Maj. Gen. Roy McCarty, welcomed Gold and Blue Star Families as formations of trainees, runners and walkers filled the field before the run.

"The pain never goes away," said Kelly Estep, Gold Star Family Member, Fort Jackson Survivor Outreach Services coordinator and event planner for the run. "It helps me to share my story and for others to learn from my story so we can make improvements for how we honor our Family members."

Estep's story of losing her husband, Staff Sgt. James Estep, to an improvised explosive device just weeks after arriving to Iraq is a story she shared with fellow Gold Star Family Members who attended the 5k run. Through their stories of loss, these Families gathered to find strength in one another and remember and honor their Family members who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.

"I ask you this morning, why are you here?" said Army Training Center and Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford "Beags" Beagle, Jr., during the opening ceremony. "We are here to say 'we will never forget.' If we forget, we dishonor them. We dishonor their memory and their sacrifice. This (run) is something we get to do. We don't have to do it ... we get to."

Fort Jackson SOS coordinators partnered with the South Carolina National Guard coordinators to organize and host the annual run. Along with the installation's senior leaders, the SOS coordinators enlisted the help of Basic Combat Trainees to attend the run, each bearing a sticker with the name of a Soldier killed in action since the start of the War on Terrorism 18 years ago.

Some, like Maj. Brian Stoltenberg from U.S. Army Medical Department Activity-Fort Jackson, wore ruck sacks and combat boots in addition to their chest stickers to honor friends they have lost.

"I run in remembrance of 1st Lt. Kevin Gaspers," Stoltenberg said. "We went through Reserve Officer Training Corps together at the University of Nebraska. His life lives on."

Soldiers, civilians and veterans wearing various unit tee shirts and hats filled the parking lot at the inflatable arch marking the start point of the run.

While the run remembers those who were lost to the continuing war, for some, the run celebrated life and offered healing. Estep said after her husband passed away, she had difficulty speaking about the loss of her husband. She said she was trying to remain strong for her children after the incident that took her husband's life.

"At first I had a very hard time sharing my story, I didn't know how to deal with it with three young children," Estep said. "I couldn't share my story. I couldn't heal and I couldn't express my emotions at the time. Over time I learned that I had to let it go for me to move forward and accept what happened."

Since that day Estep has shared her story about coping with loss, healing and being the strength her children needed during such a difficult time.

She said she wishes those who hear her story can find hope and learn from her experiences. She also added that through sharing her story with others and by participating in events that honor the fallen, she finds a sense of peace and healing.

Estep, along with more than 1,500 other runners and walkers stepped off the start line of the run to remember their Family members, friends and the names of Soldiers they had never met or knew to "always remember" those that made the ultimate sacrifice.

At the end of the run, tents offered snacks of fresh fruit and water. Vendors offered the runners and walkers swag such as work out towels, pens and small toys for children.

"Freedom is not free," McCarty said. "An event like this today is an opportunity to reaffirm to the Families that we have not forgotten the loss of their loved one. It takes each generation of men and women like we see here today in the formations to be willing to answer that call to serve this great nation. I am proud to have the opportunity to be out here today to tell them all thank you."