April 07, 2020

Mainers respond to war In tribute: Comrades of fallen soldiers march in Portland marathon

PORTLAND – Sunday was a day of memories.

The day overflowed with painful remembrances of lost lives and with the reality that family members and comrades of seven Maine National Guard members have been asked to live on despite losing a piece of themselves.

But when nearly 120 soldiers and airmen of the Maine National Guard crossed the finish line of the Maine Marathon Tribute March to the tune of “Proud to be an American,” mothers and wives of fallen soldiers wearily embraced, becoming an important part of the healing process.

“My husband spent the last year of his life with these guys, and this makes me feel closer to him,” Lori Jones, the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Michael Jones, said after the event. “It truly gives me strength to be around them. It’s nice because I know he’s part of the National Guard and always will be.”

The soldiers and airmen began their memorial trek at 6 a.m. Sunday, marching to honor the seven Maine National Guard soldiers who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war.

For the last two miles of the march, family members of the seven fallen soldiers joined the troops in the march to the finish line, honoring their loved ones.

Battling blisters, sleep deprivation and exhaustion, the soldiers and airmen took on the 26-mile journey of the Portland marathon while toting more than 30 pounds in their rucksacks.

Almost 20 Guard members completed the entire grueling course, as others walked in relay teams covering one or more legs of the route, which varied in length from 5 to 8 miles.

“Those seven guys would rather be here doing what I’m doing than be where they are right now,” said Pfc. Andrew O’Brien, 18, of Caribou, trying to explain the motivation behind pushing himself to finish the entire course. “You got to sometimes think about that in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Baby powder, Band-Aids and a change of socks became necessities, but while the sores on their feet will heal, the painful memories of their fallen friends and comrades have lingered, in some cases, for years.

The stern face of Staff Sgt. David Veverka stared at all of the Guard members walking behind Sgt. Tyson Therrien on Sunday, reminding each one of them why they dragged themselves out of bed at 3 a.m. or earlier. Colorful photos of Veverka were pinned to the back of Therrien’s pack, while the friend served as a walking memorial to his comrade in arms.

Therrien recalled how Veverka loved nature and the insecurities he carried as he doubted his ability to be accepted into the perfect apprenticeship while he attended the University of Maine in Orono. Of course, he got the position, Therrien remembered with a sad grin.

Just before he yanked his heavy pack from the ground to begin his portion of Sunday’s journey, Therrien remarked on his fellow guardsmen’s dedication to the fallen soldiers: “It means a lot to me,” he said softly.

“It certainly broke my heart when he [Veverka] died,” he said, tears welling in his eyes, barely able to choke out the last words. “I’m going to Arlington [National Cemetery] soon to visit him, though.”

Then, just like that, the troops were gathered, his pack was in place, and the group once again was marching the streets of Portland.

While the Guard members navigated the city streets, marathon runners and walkers and bystanders took the opportunity to thank the troops for their service, said Capt. Grant Delaware, the Army guardsman who brainstormed the idea.

As the group marched in formation, carrying their guidons, the flags denoting units represented in the march, many motorists gave a friendly honk, pedestrians shook their hands and thanked the soldiers for their service, while runners and walkers cheered and clapped as the boots chafed more and the packs grew heavier.

“It’s kind of humbling to think they take the time to honor the ones over there, and especially the ones they lost,” said Leah Pallas, 50, of Nashville, Tenn. Pallas walked the half-marathon event, but before the festivities kicked off in the dark hours of 6 a.m., tears trickled down her cheeks after a soldier listed the names of the seven honorees.

The march gave the state’s National Guard visibility, as many bystanders acknowledged they never realized there were units based in their own communities.

Sitting with her three children on a small bank watching the marathon, Jen Waterman of Yarmouth said the march showed her children that the troops they hear about on television are also soldiers and airmen who live in their neighborhood.

“This gives faces to this war they hear about, and it’s no longer so distant,” she said. “They know these are real soldiers, our neighbors, family members, and they’ve given their lives.”

Her 9-year-old son, Ben, piped up: “These are people like us. They are still a part of our community, and we have to help them win this war and bring peace.”

Peggy Dostie, mother of Sgt. Thomas Dostie of Somerville, said that if her son were still alive he would have marched the entire marathon. He always liked to test the limits, her husband, Michael, added.

The goal for the day was to honor the soldiers who died, but also to keep in mind those who are now overseas, Delaware said.

“This is as much for those who went over and didn’t come back as it is for those who are over now and won’t come back,” O’Brien said in stride as he rounded the bend by Portland Harbor in the final two miles of his journey.

Seven soldiers of the Maine Army National Guard have died since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003.

Sgt. Christopher D. Gelineau

23 years old, University of Southern Maine student from Portland

Member 133rd Engineer Battalion

Killed April 20, 2004, by a roadside bomb in Mosul, Iraq

Sgt. Lynn R. Poulin Sr.

47 years old, of Freedom

Member 133rd Engineer Battalion

Killed Dec. 21, 2004, in mess hall suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq

Sgt. Thomas J. Dostie

20 years old, of Somerville

Member 133rd Engineer Battalion

Killed Dec. 21, 2004, in mess hall suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq

Sgt. 1st Class Michael D. Jones

43 years old, of Unity

Member 133rd Engineer Battalion

Died March 3, 2005, from complications after surgery days after returning from Iraq

Staff Sgt. Dale J. Kelly Jr.

48 years old, of Richmond

Member 172nd Mountain Infantry Company

Died May 6, 2006, conducting force protection operations in southern Iraq

Staff Sgt. David M. Veverka

25 years old, University of Maine student from Jamestown, Pa.

Member 172nd Mountain Infantry Company

Killed May 6, 2006, by a roadside bomb in Iraq

Capt. Patrick D. Damon

41 years old, of Falmouth

240th Engineer Group

Died June 15, 2006, from a possible heart attack in Bagram, Afghanistan

Source: Maine Army National Guard

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