Lots of people spend their summers relaxing on the beach or taking that once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Jon Bellona and his friends are spending the hottest months of the year running across the entire country, from California to Virginia. That's 4,116 miles — one mile for every service member who has died in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
One of those soldiers was Bellona's best friend and college roommate First Lieutenant Michael J. Cleary. He died December 20, 2005, when an improvised explosive device, or IED, blew up near his vehicle just 10 days before he was scheduled to return home.
"I was actually running along the New Jersey shoreline looking at New York City, where the Twin Towers used to be, when I came up with the idea for the run," Bellona said. "9/11 was the reason Mike joined the Army."
Running was also a natural way to remember Cleary, who loved to pound the pavement.
"He was definitely a big runner when he was in the Army," Bellona said, "even though he smoked about a pack a day!"
"I was a football player in college and never ran," said Rowland Boateng, one of Cleary's best friends from college. "Then spring semester [of] junior year he took me out [on] this long 7 miles, and since then I've been running."
The journey is called Run for the Fallen. The core group of runners includes some of Cleary's friends from Hamilton College Erin Kavanagh, whom he was scheduled to marry two months after he passed away.
But the group isn't just running for Cleary.
"Participating in this run is part of the healing process for us," Boateng said. "This is something that can help all of us who have lost a loved one — a friend, a son, a daughter, a grandchild, a loved one, anyone."
The group started out on June 14, the Army's birthday — better known as Flag Day — right outside of Fort Irwin in California. The military training center is located in the Mojave Desert, one of the hottest spots in the country. The sun was beating down and the pavement was heating up as the runners stretched before the first mile.
"Most people don't know this," Brigadier General Dana J.H. Pittard told the group, "but we are at the same latitude as Baghdad out here."
The group ran the first mile together. Most of the runners, including Pittard, stuck around for the second mile. After that, the core group started switching off, relay-style, for the rest of the 26 miles they tackled that day. At the end of each mile the group planted a small American flag in the ground.
"We are also placing placards with information about each service member," Bellona said. "We worked with about 20 schools [to make] them, so that people can learn a little bit about each of the fallen."
Each placard is a laminated piece of paper, usually with a photo, that contains some facts about the fallen soldier, Marine, airman or sailor the mile is dedicated to. They are being put up in chronological order of their death.
The group is running across Texas this weekend, and they're encouraging everyone to run a mile in their own towns on August 24, when they plan to finish the run at Arlington National Cemetery. The group decided on their final location when the run was only 4,100 miles long.
"We may have to do a few extra loops around Arlington," Bellona said.