FORT STEWART, Ga. - An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 spouses, Family Members, Soldiers and others kicked off their "Walk/Run to Iraq/Afghanistan and Back" with a spirited display of love and support for 3rd ID Warriors defending America in those countries.

Shortly before the march began at Jan. 23, walkers and runners representing 22 participating units gathered on Donovan Field. Small American flags were distributed and spouses shared Family talk and encouragement as groups formed to watch shout-outs from Soldiers of all ranks down range.

With Toby Keith's "American Soldier" playing in the background, the hundreds of participants moved in a wave from Donovan Field to Ninth Street North, where a quick ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to send them on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan and back.

Internet sources set the distance from Fort Stewart to Kabul, Afghanistan, at 7,484 miles and from Fort Stewart to Baghdad, Iraq, at 6,739 miles.

Strollers, the children in them bundled against the cold, were abundant among participants. Dogs, important members of many Army Families, also were plentiful and set a quick pace for their masters. Some dogs wore sweaters.

The ranks of participants walking or jogging along Niles Avenue stretched from Ninth Street North to 16th Street North. Many waved or held high the American flags as they walked.

Jacqui Coffman, a Family Readiness Group leader and a key organizer of the Walk/Run, said, "It's very exciting to see so many people come out, even on a cold, yucky day, in honor of our deployed Soldiers. It really has helped esprit de corps and makes us all feel that we are in this together."

The theme of togetherness, of being connected, was apparent in comments by others as well. "It's all about connectedness," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, 3rd ID deputy commanding general-rear, in brief remarks before the Walk/Run began.

Chelsey Swindle, wife of Sgt. Jason Swindle of Company A, 1st Battalion 64th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said she finds encouragement by being with other wives whose husbands are deployed. "I wanted to support my husband and this is also a good way to meet other wives and make new friends," she said.

Melissa Harris, wife of Staff Sgt. Marcus Harris of A Co., 1/64 AR, said she is new to the area. "I wanted to be a part of the Family Readiness Groups and also to pay tribute to all of the guys who are over there. They are doing the job for us and we want to show them that we all care back here."

Sergeant First Class Michael C. Aten of 26th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, said his motivation to participate was "being a Soldier."

"With our brothers and sisters down range doing the job that they are doing, that's motivation enough to support them in any way we can," he said.

Unit and individual pride was evident at the launch. Spouses from a number of units assembled before and after the march to take group photos or videos to be sent down range. A familiar message: "We love you and we miss you." Some held signs telling their Soldiers they are loved and missed.
Hunter Army Airfield will host a Walk/Run kickoff event at Tominac Fitness Center starting at 9 a.m. , Saturday. A Family Readiness Group tailgate breakfast will give participants an opportunity to socialize after the event.

Then the tallying begins in earnest.

"We're going to ask the team captains to log in their total miles by unit on the Facebook site, which is up and running now," said Coffman. "You'll start to see some mileage posted at the end of January."

Participants who walk or run 100 miles will receive a T-shirt during the Yellow Ribbon Walk marking the half-way point on April 24.

For the health of it
Jacqui Coffman, a Family Readiness Group leader and a key organizer of the Walk/Run to Iraq/Afghanistan and Back, hopes Saturday's successful launch and continued participation will lead to additional, lasting benefits for all.

"I would really like it if we could form lots of little groups out of this, and encourage one another and our Family Members - not just adults, but our children as well - to get out there and walk in honor of our deployed Soldiers," Coffman said.

She added that she hopes the Walk/Run will be a catalyst for friendships and social walking groups.

Family Readiness Groups will play a leading role in forming such groups and in holding social events in support of the Walk/Run, she said.

Coffman - mother of three girls, ages 10, 8 and 5 - said she has been a runner/walker for 20 years and finds regular exercise with friends helps her emotionally as well as physically.

"There is a group of gals in my neighborhood where we drop the kids off at school and walk three miles together," she said. "It's a good way for us to express to one another our own frustrations of the day, the week, to encourage and help each other through whatever problems we may be discussing that morning."

Those walks and the camaraderie with other spouses have been very beneficial to her, she said, especially when she had smaller children and "was locked up in the house all day."

"My mood totally changes when I go outdoors and the sun is shining and I'm soaking up a little bit of that vitamin D," she said. "It has always helped my own state of mind, just to be outdoors and moving, and I would think it would probably help most people in the same way."

Finding the Walk on Facebook
A Facebook site has been set up for participants in the Walk/Run to Iraq/Afghanistan and Back.
The link is Afghanistan/261713572337
The page will be the gathering place for the community of hundreds of Spouses, retirees, Family Members and others who have begun their portion of the journey to the two nations where 3rd ID Warriors are defending America.

Look at the left hand side of the page for instructions about how the mileage tally will be conducted. Participants are asked to keep a record of their miles (you can walk, run, swim or bike) and turn them in monthly to their Unit Team Captain.

The Team Captain will post unit totals monthly on the Facebook site. The goal is for each Unit to walk to and from Iraq/Afghanistan at least once.

Visit the page often to share with others, read comments from participants and others supporting our Soldiers - and watch the miles add up unit by unit!