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Commentary: Mile-marker tribute ensures legacy lives on

A team of Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. first sergeants start Day Two of the Arkansas Run for the Fallen event March 19, 2016, in Clarksville, Ark. The 5th Annual Arkansas Run for the Fallen event is a cross-state run of 143 miles where each mile marks a fallen hero and has been identified with an American flag and a biography of each. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

A team of Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. first sergeants start Day Two of the Arkansas Run for the Fallen event March 19, 2016, in Clarksville, Ark. The 5th Annual Arkansas Run for the Fallen event is a cross-state run of 143 miles where each mile marks a fallen hero and has been identified with an American flag and a biography of each. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

Airmen of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron honor a fallen Arkansan March 20, 2016, in Conway, Ark. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

Airmen of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron honor a fallen Arkansan March 20, 2016, in Conway, Ark. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

Airmen of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron honor a fallen Arkansan March 20, 2016, in Conway, Ark. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

Airmen of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron honor a fallen Arkansan March 20, 2016, in Conway, Ark. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

The Arkansas Run for the Fallen event began in Ozark, Ark., with a team of Army and Air National Guardsmen carrying The Colors as they ran 143 miles in honor of the fallen from Arkansas March 18, 2016. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

The Arkansas Run for the Fallen event began in Ozark, Ark., with a team of Army and Air National Guardsmen carrying The Colors as they ran 143 miles in honor of the fallen from Arkansas March 18, 2016. This year the race paid tribute to 143 fallen service members and allowed the Gold Star Families a chance to honor their loved ones they have lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- (Editor's Note: This year Arkansas helps 143 Gold Star Families, families who have lost a service member, remember their lost loved ones. The fifth annual Arkansas Run for the Fallen event is a cross-state run of 143 miles where each mile marks a state-native fallen hero and has been identified with an American flag and a biography of each. The 143-mile run ended with additional participants running the final 5K with the running team up the stairs of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock where the closing ceremony took place.) 

"In the aftermath, we are because they were," said RJ Heller, author of "Holding Grace."

The setting for the Arkansas Run for the Fallen took place in the lobby of a small hotel in Clarksville, Ark., where a group of rough, weatherworn bikers mingled with the Arkansas Run for the Fallen team and volunteers as they prepared boxes of biography cards and American Flags flown in Iraq during a combat mission.

Notes from a piano hung on the air as Alyson Beason tapped softly on the ivory keys bringing to life the melody of the Star Spangled Banner. The group fell silent as the music filled the room - breathing life into the cause of honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

These were the final preparations for the 2016 Arkansas Run for the Fallen event March 18-20, 2016, where volunteers ran across the state to honor the 143 fallen Arkansans.

The following morning, daylight came early and the motivated volunteers prepared for the long day ahead. The opening ceremony held in Ozark, Ark., began with the local choir singing the National Anthem, a simple prayer offered and the cannon fired to signal the start of the event. 

As soon as the cannon fired, the grey skies gave way to rainy conditions and even colder temperatures. None of these obstacles waylaid the runners. They remained focused on the task ahead: to stop at each mile marker and honor one of the fallen. The roads quickly filled with the selfless who wanted only to be a part of the memorial. The silence on the road is filled with stories of our fallen comrades' sacrifices.

As the runners covered ground, the American flag, Arkansas state flag, POW/ MIA flag and a small American Flag with a biography of the fallen hero attached, were proudly carried through desolate backroads, small towns and crowded streets. It was in these moments when I was most overwhelmed with how much people do care about the lives we have lost. I was humbled witnessing how most of the small town streets were lined with patriots waving 'Old Glory' and encouraging us.

As the runners reached each mile marker with the biography and American flag, the name, date and action of the deceased was read while the remaining runners rendered a salute. For many of these mile marker tributes, Gold Star family members wearing blue to support the Run for the Fallen event, stood quietly bearing witness as their beloved was honored.

Once the flag was planted and a salute rendered, the team comforted and thanked those families and kept it moving to the next mile marker. The miles filled with family members seemed to be the hardest to leave.

Even though I physically moved from one marker to the next, a small piece of me lingered behind with the last. I couldn't help but think about the family eating Thanksgiving dinner with one less person at their table; the wife who will never receive a 'goodnight' kiss from her husband; or the daughter whose dad will never get the chance to walk her down the aisle.

Sadness lingered in the eyes of the families of the fallen, but once a service member or volunteer offered a hug and gratitude, the comfort of knowing someone remembers took over. You could feel that we helped them share their loss, not wrestle with it alone.

Once we reached the final steps to the stairs of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, more than 60 Gold Star families, runners, coordinators and spectators filled the atrium. It marked the end of a journey which immortalized our fallen comrades. In a fitting tribute, Jim Morehead, the father of Master Sgt. Kevin Morehead spoke of his son's legacy. Once he left the podium, a stillness came over the crowd after his moving account of loss, sacrifice and his unwavering pride in those who stood ready to protect their country.

The audience remained somber as Gold Star family members then came forward to read the list of names of the fallen. When they made it to their heroes name, their voices all buckled, and took on a weaker note and their eyes struggled to hold back the tears --  but they continued reading.  To me, it felt as if I knew these heroes personally and wanted to help the wife, father, mother, cousin and niece who would never see or hear from these men and women again.

While these miles will never bring any of the fallen service members back or make the loss of them less painful, this run will ensure their legacy lives on.

None of this would have been possible if it hadn't been for the passion of U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Bubba Beason who decided that he wasn't willing to let the memories of the fallen fade into silence. The importance this event is proven by the comfort the families now have in knowing their loved ones will be remembered.

Although I have never met any of these heroes in the aftermath of this memorial event, my appreciation of their bravery and service to our country and freedom will never cease.
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