By Tom Sileo
Syndicated Columnist, The Unknown Soldiers
In the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans of all backgrounds came together to honor the fallen and renew the spirit of freedom. That unique, unifying feeling returned on the weekend of Sept. 8, 2012, as thousands of Americans stood shoulder-to-shoulder in nearly 50 cities around the world for the Travis Manion Foundation’s 9/11 Heroes Run.
From Aurora, Colo., where citizens still deeply mourn the tragic July 20 movie theater shootings, to Afghanistan, where thousands of brave men and women still serve in harm’s way, runners, volunteers, and spectators gathered to salute the victims of 9/11 and those who have shielded us in the eleven years since. Even though some race locations are thousands of miles apart, the “If Not Me, Then Who…” movement’s resounding message could be heard before each and every 5k run.
“Today we run to honor those who are no longer with us,” the message, which is read aloud by each 9/11 Heroes Run race director, begins. “We run to honor fallen heroes from every community across this great land.
“Heroes who wore the uniform of our nation — whether military, police, firefighter, or emergency responder,” it continues. “Today we run to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 and since.”
After the 2007 death of 1st Lt. Travis Manion in Fallujah, Iraq, the 9/11 Heroes Run began as one race in Doylestown, Pa., where the Marine spent most of his young life. Guided by Travis’ inspiring words — “If Not Me, Then Who…” — the annual run to honor the fallen grew bigger and faster than almost anyone could have imagined.
“Thanks to your support, ‘If Not Me Who…’ has grown into a global movement,” Travis’ father, Col. Tom Manion, USMCR (Ret.), said to runners, volunteers, and spectators at the Sept. 9 Doylestown 9/11 Heroes Run. “As all of you gather here today, there are thousands more like you at other 9/11 Heroes Runs across America and around the world.”
The 2012 event was particularly emotional for the Manion family and the Doylestown community. Travis’ mother, Janet Manion, passed away on Apr. 24 after a valiant battle against cancer. While the Travis Manion Foundation still mourns and misses its Chairman, Founder, and Visionary, Janet Manion’s spirit of putting service above self was clearly felt at the run.
Sgt. Adam Keys, an injured war veteran who attended the Doylestown race, personifies the purpose of the 9/11 Heroes Run. A portion of proceeds from the event will help the wounded American warrior.
In neighboring Philadelphia, Travis’ sister and only sibling, Travis Manion Foundation president Ryan Manion, echoed her father’s words and paid tribute to her late brother and mom. But in keeping with her remarkable family’s mission, she also seized the opportunity to pay tribute to another departed warrior.
“We also also honor a fallen American hero named Petty Officer First Class Michael Strange,” Ryan said. “A United States Navy cryptologist who grew up right here in Philly, Michael was killed in a tragic helicopter crash last year.”
Ryan then handed the microphone to the fallen sailor’s mother, Philadelphia Police Officer Betsy Strange, who delivered a touching address.
“Please think of the brave men and women in Afghanistan right now,” the grieving military mother told the audience. “Please think of their families at home. And please think of people like my son, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”
While every 9/11 Heroes Run was a huge success, this year’s Houston race, held at Ellington Airport, was a shining star. Because of a staggering turnout of several thousand people, including many who heard about the event on CBS Radiostations and came out to participate on race day, the starting gun was briefly delayed as hard-working volunteers scrambled to accomodate the huge crowd. But once sign-ups were complete, the massive race started and ended perfectly.
Some cities, like Atlanta, were holding a 9/11 Heroes Run for the first time. Volunteer race director David Erwin, who served in the Marine Corps as a Gunnery Sergeant, worked tirelessly to make the inaugural race a fun, inspiring event for all who attended, and runners appreciated the opportunity to experience such a purposeful morning.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Tim Wood of Cumming, Ga., who ran his first 5k at the Sept. 8 Atlanta 9/11 Heroes Run, said. “You don’t really get an opportunity like this to give back to something that was very tragic and something that really happened. You want to make sure that their memory is not lost.”
The Atlanta race had a strong volunteer presence, thanks to more fine citizens who wanted to give something back.
Also buoyed by the hard work of volunteers, San Diego’s 9/11 Heroes Run had an impressive turnout, backed by the surrounding Marine Corps and Navy communities, which have consistently rallied around the Travis Manion Foundation’s cause of honoring, remembering, and assisting families of the fallen and veterans.
“It was so empowering today … the biggest sense I got was the sense of community,” Travis Manion Foundation Director of Programs Amy Looney, who also serves as the San Diego 9/11 Heroes Run race director, said on Sept. 9. “To turn around and see so many people come out to honor those that we lost, even people they sometimes don’t even know, shows that sense of community.”
Amy, who lost her husband, LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney, in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2010, became emotional while describing the many teams of runners who assembled to honor different fallen heroes. The largest, incredibly, was Team Warsen, which formed in less than a month to salute Navy Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class David Warsen, who was killed in an Afghanistan helicopter crash on Aug. 16 alongside six fellow U.S. service members.
A very successful 9/11 Heroes Run was also held in New York, where Travis Manion Foundation board member and Iraq war veteran Ward Savage appeared live on Fox & Friends on Sept. 9. But a race in a smaller city can also have a big impact. The inaugural Sept. 8 Palm City, Fla., 9/11 Heroes Run, held in a park named after fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Wilson, proved that the right mix of runners, volunteers, spectators, and determination can make any run echo with significance.
Hundreds attended the 5k in the runner-friendly community, which paused to thank brave men and women who spend every day making sacrifices for others, including fallen heroes like Lance Cpl. Wilson, whose mother was in attendance.
“It was a rare time to thank the heroes of this community and it was done in a warm, welcoming fashion,” Travis Manion Foundation Assistant Director of Development and Army wife Courtney Mitchell, who attended the race, wrote about her Palm City experience.
The inaugural Virginia Beach 9/11 Heroes Run was also extraordinary, as the area’s massive Naval community came together on Mount Trashmore to salute the fallen and also help The 31 Heroes Project, which was founded after the devastating Aug. 6, 2011, helicopter crash in Afghanistan that took the lives of 30 American service members and a military working dog.
The 31 Heroes Project is one of many national and local charities to benefit from the 9/11 Heroes Run, as the Travis Manion Foundation splits half of all race proceeds with organizations that help troops, veterans, firefighters, police, first responders, and their families.
The opening ceremony was “laced with patriotic anthems, trumpet salutes, and bag pipes,” according to 9/11 Heroes Run Regional Manager and military wife Lindsey Finnegan, who attended the race. It also featured emotional speeches by Kellie and Erin Looney, sisters of fallen LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney.
The Virginia Beach run finished in dramatic fashion when a motivated mother on crutches and her young son completed the event’s special one-mile race. Motivated to honor the fallen, nothing could stop the mother-son team and hundreds of fellow runners from crossing the finish line.
While the vast majority of 9/11 Heroes Run races were held on the weekend of Sept. 8, there are still more to come in cities like Seattle and Arlington, Va. Please visit 911heroesrun.com for a list of remaining races, and please considerdonating to the Travis Manion Foundation to help more in the military community, while also making the 2013 global 9/11 Heroes Run series even bigger.
After visiting Rescue One in New York City before heading back to the battlefield, 1st Lt. Travis Manion gave a hat from the devastated fire station to his father.
“Dad, always remember that this is what we’re fighting for,” Travis said.
The 2012 9/11 Heroes Run demonstrated that in a nation often focused on its divisions, we are still Americans, bound by freedom and our flag.
“Show the world we are stronger and more united than ever,” the pre-race message concluded. “God bless you, God bless those in harm’s way today, and God Bless America!”
Thank you to our generous sponsors and charity partners. Thank you to our incredible race directors. Thank you to our committed volunteers. Thank you to our enthusiastic runners and spectators. And most of all, thank you to the brave men and women who still step forward to serve and sacrifice, even after eleven years of war. The 9/11 Heroes Run is for you.