Somewhere around mid-day today (Friday, October 15th), outside the city of Rockland, Maine, a retired postal worker and Army veteran named Mike Ehredt will plant a small American flag in the ground overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It will bear a small yellow ribbon marked with the name and age at death of Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin--a marine helicopter pilot who was the first casualty of the Iraq War, in 2003.
That in and of itself isn't all that newsworthy. But that flag will be the 4,417th flag that Ehredt has planted over the past five and a half months, one mile apart, in a line that stretches from Astoria Oregon, on the Pacific Coast, to Rockland, Maine, on the Atlantic. Why 4,417? Because there is a flag for each U.S. military service member who has been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. A flag marked with each person's name, rank, hometown, and age at death.
While that alone is a lovely gesture, what gives the effort its real impact is that Ehredt has traveled every single one of the 4,514 miles required to plant those flags, coast to coast ... on foot. Running. Thirty miles a day. Every day. For over 150 days. Alone. Over mountains. In snow and sleet. In blazing, sticky heat. Stopping every mile to plant a flag, observe a moment of silence to honor the life lost, offer a salute, and move on to the next mile.
Given that Ehredt is a retired postal worker, his pushing on despite wind, snow, sleet or heat to accomplish his appointed mission seems especially apropos. But I think what struck me most about this story (which I only heard about through an email from a mutual friend) was that despite the noteworthy athletic accomplishment involved ... the effort does not seem to be about Ehredt.
As an adventure writer, I get press releases fairly regularly about people who are endeavoring to do some athletic or adventurous feat. Be the first to do "x," the youngest to do "y," fly/sail/drive around the world, summit some peak, or achieve some other noteworthy, and hopefully newsworthy, goal. The feats require effort, perseverance, and sometimes a bit of luck, to be sure. But I sometimes end up with a slightly uncomfortable feeling about why the person is so hell-bent on the goal in the first place. I'm all for adventure. But for adventure's sake. And when there's a lot of hoopla around the effort, I can't help but wonder... would that person still do it if there was no press, no fame, no book deal, no speaking engagements to be had in the end, and if nobody was going to know they'd even done it? (I even wrote a piece about this question of commercializing adventure on this site last year.)
But in Ehredt's case, the answer to the question of would he do it if nobody was watching... is, clearly, yes. His website does list a number of small sponsors... but the top one is a non-profit veterans' organization. He stayed in the homes of volunteers or families who'd lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan along the way. Most of the press that's come out about him has been in small-town papers, as he's passed through and somebody noticed this marathon runner pushing a jog stroller filled with flags, power bars, Gatorade and some spare clothing along local roads.
He has a blog on his website, but many of the entries are about the service personnel whose flags he's carried. And not all the entries are easy. One relates his meeting with the mother of a lost soldier who'd committed suicide after hazing from higher-ranking soldiers in Iraq. Ehredt is a good writer, and the posts offer intriguing glimpses into his experience and the people he connected with along the way. Some people have come and run with him for a day, despite the punishing distance of 30 miles he has covered almost every day since May 1st, when he began his journey.
The idea of running 30 miles a day, every day, is staggering in and of itself. The build-up coverage of the New York Marathon (November 7th) has already begun, and all of those people are going to be mighty proud of themselves if they finish. As they should be. But that's one marathon. This guy has run the equivalent of a marathon every day for over five months. It helps that he was already an avid adventure athlete, having competed in two Eco Challenges, high mountain trail running races, marathons, and ultra-marathons. And he kept to about a 5 mph pace on his journey across America. But, still.
The athletic challenge involved matters not because it proves anything about Ehredt. It matters because it means that he endured a lot of discomfort, and has put out a tremendous physical, grinding, exhausting effort in the course of trying to pay a quiet, personal tribute to the too-often faceless individuals who have been lost in the service of their country over the past seven years. And somehow, that makes the tribute more meaningful.
Each day, he said, he thought about the 30 people he was honoring. He took time to read their names, and salute their lives. In many cases, he met their relatives, and heard their stories. Not because there was fame or achievement or a great book deal in it for him, but because he didn't want those individuals to be forgotten. Because he thought they mattered, and that someone should mark and acknowledge their unique, individual lives, as well as their sacrifice. He started with the most recent death, at the beginning of his run, and worked his way chronologically back to Maj. Aubin, today in Rockland.
Much of what dominates the news, these days, is election hype, political maneuvering, and the stories of people bent on wealth, power, or personal fame. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for so long that many of us don't give the details of what the cost has been much thought, on a daily basis. Or if we do, it's in aggregate numbers. The Lehrer Hour, on PBS, puts up photos and names of military casualties when their deaths are made official. But other than that, it's easy for the dead to become invisible, unless they happen to be someone we knew.
Running across America in just over 150 days is a feat, in and of itself--Forrest Gump would have been impressed. But Mike Ehredt's real accomplishment, as I see it, is that through his effort, and his blog, he has managed to humanize, and personalize, each and every life that has been sacrificed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has made them matter just a little bit more.
And that effort, and that accomplishment, seemed worth noting.