A Run To Honor Fallen Soldiers

The Run For The Fallen started on June 15, 2008,outside Fort Irwin Amy Base, in Barstow, Calif.
U.S.Army/Ken Drylie
You might see them this summer running along a back road through a small town near you carrying an American flag. A small group of American 20-somethings, touched personally by the death of one U.S. soldier in the Iraq War, are doing something dramatic to honor them all, report CBS News anchor Russ Mitchell and producer Phil Hirschkorn.

It's called the Run For The Fallen -- a 10 week trek across the country in memory of 4,128 casualties.

"We're going from the Pacific to the Atlantic, in the hopes of bringing people together," says run founder Jon Bellona, 26, from Clinton, N.Y.

Bellona came up with idea of running a mile for every soldier killed in Iraq and honoring them in the order in which they died.

"Each mile is unique," says Bellona. "It's not running on a lap over and over again. It's a chunk of America."

The journey started on Father's Day at Fort Irwin, Calif. on June 15, and passes through a dozen states before finishing at Arlington National Cemetery, in Va., on Aug. 24, forcing the team to cover more than 60 miles a day, every day, for 10 weeks straight.

At every mile along the run, a placard honoring one fallen soldier is posted to a road sign or a fence along the route. Hand-made by school children from across the country, they're trucked in a U-Haul, loaned by the company, that leads the way.

The long days begin at dawn with the runners gathered in a circle for a solemn reading of names. There were 63 names read the day we joined the run -- ranging in age from, Ronald Paulsen, killed at 53, to the youngest, Jason Franco, 18.

"My motivation is Michael Cleary," Bellona says, referring to his best friend and roomate at Hamilton College in upstate New York. They had bonded over the fact that both of their fathers were military veterans.

Michael Cleary Memorial Fund
A standout student-athlete, Cleary joined the Army after graduating in 2003. He became a munitions expert and was a platoon leader when he deployed to Iraq in January 2005.

During a leave, he became engaged to Erin Kavanagh, who was from his hometown, Dallas, Pa. But six months later, in December 2005, Cleary was killed in an ambush.

"Mike was a hero not because of the way he died, but because of the way he lived, and I think that's true for all of them," Kavanagh says.

When Bellona pitched the memorial run, she was quick to sign up.

"It's been very healing," Kavanagh says. "It's a way to move on every day and hope that we're doing something that's helping other people as well."

That includes mothers such as Gay Eisenhauer, from Pinckneyville, Ill. Her son, Wyatt, an Army private, was born on flag day, 1978, and buried on Memorial Day, 2005, after his humvee was blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"You can't put a value on what they've given us," Eisenhauer says of the living memorial. "To have your son remembered by somebody who has never met you or met him -- you can't put it into words."

Jana Mertens drove three hours with family from Gallatin, Tenn., to witness the marker be posted for her son, Tyler Overstreet, at mile marker 2,807, outside Goreville, Ill., on July 31.

"He was born on the 23rd of September, he died on the 23rd of October, and he was the 23rd actually hung today," Mertens said.

Overstreet was a 22-year-old Marine when an improvised explosive device blew up his armored truck. He never met the son, now two-years-old, that he left behind.

"He volunteered to go. He wanted to go and fight. He went, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice," his mother said.

The core group of runners, mostly friends from Hamilton, take turns covering the distance and are helped by reinforcements. Members of the Illinois National Guard, which has lost 14 soliders in Iraq, joined for a day, as did a group of active duty soldiers from the army base in Marion, IL.

Veteran Mike Rettig, who spent a year stationed in Baghdad when two memebrs of his battalion were killed, ran 45 of the 60 memorial miles between East Moline and Herrin, Illinois.

"It was just knowing these guys will never get to follow their passions in life, and running is a passion since I've been doing since I was little, and I'm still able to do it, and I feel very lucky."

As word gets out about the run, so do the police escorts and warm welcomes. In tiny Vienna, Illinois, twenty-five flag-waving residents gathered on the sidewalk during their lunch hour to cheer the caravan as it came down the town's main street.

The deepest appreciation, it seems, resides with the families of the fallen. Terry Henderson flew into Illinois from the Texas panhandle to personally memorialize her son, Miles.

"If they can run 4,000 miles for my son and all these other boys, I can help 'em a couple of those miles."

Miles, went from high school to flight school, becoming an Army helicopter pilot. When his Apache crashed in a mud storm two years ago, he was just 24. Terry ran Miles' mile and hung his placard in Metropolis, Illinois, in Superman square.

"To honor miles and 4,000 other men who were equally as brave and wonderful and special to their families," she said.