Lance Cpl. Caleb Kempf conceded he was a little nervous after his commanding officer asked him to be the first Marine to run in Fort Gordon’s ninth annual Tribute to the Fallen.
When he started jogging Tuesday around the three-mile track lapping Barton Field, however, the jitters dissolved.
All he could think about was Capt. Matthew Bancroft, 29; Sgt. Nathan Hays, 21; and Lance Cpl. Bryan Bertrand, 23.
The three Marines died in Pakistan on Jan. 9, 2002, during the Afghanistan War. Their Humvee ran over a hidden explosive.
“If had a choice, I would probably run every day, dedicating (it to) their lives,” Kempf said after completing the inaugural lap of this year’s Tribute to the Fallen run. “It is a little something I can give back for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Kempf, who was participating in his second consecutive tribute run, is one of about 50 Marines and sailors who will jog the Barton Field track nonstop for 10 days to honor the more than 1,500 Marines and Navy personnel who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The event began at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday with the commanding officer of the Fort Gordon Marine Corps Detachment ordering that 21 rounds of ammunition be delivered to the firing detail.
As each runner completes his or her lap, the 21 rounds will be passed on to the next sprinter until 1,500 miles – the distance from Augusta to El Paso, Texas – are reached in honor all fallen Marines and sailors who died in “defiance of tyranny,” Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Grenz said during the tribute’s opening remarks.
Though many Marines said the tribute is essentially an extension of the blisters, sores and sweat they endure in physical training, Grenz said the run is an event marked by “great sorrow and happiness, pain and joy, and heroism and brotherhood” shown in honor of the men and women who came before them.
“Today, we will run for them,” Grenz said. “We will run in the heat of the Georgia sun and in the darkness of the autumn night. For the next 10 days, we will run through the dust, wind, rain and mud with heavy thoughts and heavy hearts.”
The list of the fallen kept at Fort Gordon spans a dozen binders, each filled with hundreds of pages of Marines and sailors ranging in age from 18 to 45 who came from all 50 states and U.S. territories.
Grenz said many had spouses and children.
Two were from the local area: Augusta Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael A. Jordan, 35, of Destroyer Squadron 50 in Manama, Bahrain; and Aiken Cpl. Matthew V. Dillon, 25, of Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 in San Diego.
They died during the Iraq War, Jordan on Jan. 13, 2006, and Dillon on Dec. 11, 2006.
Fort Gordon Sgt. Jeffrey Veit and said the reason he joined the Marines in 2007 was Cpl. Peter Giannopoulos, 22. Giannopoulos, a native of the Chicago area like Veit, was killed in combat in Iraq on Nov. 11, 2004, when enemy forces opened fired.
Veit said he read of Giannopoulos’ death, and that it changed his life.
“He had a similar story,” Veit said. “Seeing someone like me in the news really put why I needed to serve into perspective for me.”
The final tribute lap will be run at 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, by the entire group of Marines and sailors who participated in the event, plus supporting Fort Gordon military units and commanders.
The tribute will conclude when the 21 rounds are handed to the firing detail, and the 21-gun salute is rendered.
Veit, an instructor of satellite communications at Fort Gordon, said he will be there to the end of his fourth tribute run.
“It could’ve been me,” he said of Giannopoulos. “Now, I must dedicate myself to his sacrifice.”