The e-mail I sent to everyone who donated to support my fundraising efforts included this message:
I selected this particular event in part because my efforts could somehow benefit the military members. It seems like everyone has their favorite cause, and there are wristbands and colored ribbons everywhere you turn, but I was confident in raising money on behalf of Fisher House.
I could have never imagined that during my campaign, a friend would lose a member of her family while he was serving in Afghanistan.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Bryan Berky's unit was on joint military escort protecting a shipment of food from the World Health Organization destined for villages in the western part of Afghanistan. Near Bala Baluk, the convoy was ambushed by insurgents. Bryan's unit's vehicle was disabled, leaving it immobile and surrounded. During the ensuing 3-hour battle, Bryan took up position as gunner and provided suppressing fire to allow others to get to safety, thus exposing himself as a target. He was then killed by enemy gunfire. A total of three American and seven Afghan troops died in that battle, but because of Bryan's actions, he was the only casualty of his unit. In the most literal way, he gave his life to save his friends and protect those under his care.
I am dedicating my run to Bryan’s memory - I hope my small effort will remind spectators that Bryan and others like him paid the ultimate sacrifice. Please keep Bryan's family, and others like his, in your thoughts and prayers.
On race day, I had a sign on my back that said, “Running in memory of Staff Sgt Bryan Berky” along with his photo.
I walked from the charity village to the start line with some lovely teammates from Salt Lake City who asked about him right away.
Upon our arrival at the start line area, we waited for a pit stop (my fourth of the morning - nerves!) While in line, someone tapped me on the back and said, “I knew Berky.” We shook hands and I asked how they knew each other. He told me they went to EOD school together and before I could ask his name or say anything else, he was gone. I immediately wished I knew his name - I honestly don’t even know if he was a participant or a spectator. But for the rest of the day, to me, that individual represented everyone Bryan served with.
After the moment of silence, prayer, national anthem and V-22 Osprey flyover, I got in line with Moe, a lady from the team. The nervous energy at a start line is like nothing I can describe. I was jumping around a little trying to stay warm, and clapping my gloved hands (ugh, to the damn Black Eyed Peas on the loudspeaker…) when a man tapped my shoulder and with a thick Spanish accent said, “Your relative?” I told him no, and then he just closed his eyes and nodded at me. It put me in the right headspace for the start.
The first few miles are a blur - I’ll write about the actual race portion of my experience soon, so stay tuned for stories featuring of cramps, nausea, hip pain (am I a senior citizen already!?) and more...
Somewhere near the three mile mark a woman old enough to be my mother said, “I’m so sorry…” I wasn’t sure how to respond - but on behalf of everyone that the Airman from earlier in the day represented - I said “Thank you.”
Then she ran passed me and I saw the back of her white shirt, with the photo of a handsome Navy Captain in front of an airplane and a message similar to the one I was wearing. I quickly told her, “I’m so sorry for you, too…”
The race boasted 21,008 participants - I finished 19,528th. I like to think that almost 20,000 people passed me and saw Bryan’s photo.
As I worked my way up the hill near the Georgetown Reservoir, which was breathtakingly beautiful, but really steep and difficult, I met up with the lady in the white shirt again. “Tell me about the handsome guy on your shirt?” I asked. “My son was killed in Iraq in 2006. I’ve run six of these since then...” we talked for a while until she sped ahead.
During mile 16 I stopped on Constitution Avenue to use the portable facilities. I realized while in there that I didn’t need to 'go', rather it was an excuse to stop moving for a few minute or two. Once I was back out on the street, I didn’t know if I had the energy to get started again and I thought I hit the proverbial wall (little did I know that that wouldn’t come until much later…) My mind was racing (funny, because my body wasn’t!) with thoughts like ‘Why am I doing this? Who do I think I am? I will never do this again. What if I have to get on the slowpoke bus and don’t finish!”
And just then, a woman put her hand on my back, said, “I will run to honor him too…” and kept going. And so did I.
I started walking on the Rochambeau Bridge at mile 20 and was really discouraged. How was it possible that even my elbows were starting to hurt? And suddenly, I was in stride with the lady in the white shirt again. She said, “I’ve been thinking about Bryan. I have four boys, and he’s the same age as my youngest.” I thanked her for thinking of him, especially considering her situation, and she zoomed past me once again.
Eventually I got over the bridge – and my mental wall – and through those last five miles. I was smiling when I crossed the finish line and crying by the time I was in the corral waiting for a Marine to hang a medal around my neck.
I followed the instructions and climbed the hill(!) to the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) for the photo line. And after I smiled and held up my medal (something I didn’t have the cognitive skills nor energy to do at my last marathon) I asked the gentleman to take a picture of my back…
The white shirt lady and I were not alone – there were hundreds like us. I read her shirt over and over throughout the day, and once concentrated on the unique spelling of her son’s name in an effort to keep my mind nimble when things were tough. Yet I can not recall his name no matter how hard I try. Like the anonymous Airman from the predawn start line, he represents more in mind.
Please pray for our service members and their families.