— Twelve thousand runners shuffle to the starting line. Some are hopping, some stretching. And some are just staring, wondering if they can finish a race that’s a bit over nine miles.
Vivian White jogs nearly that far five days a week.
The public address system greets the rippling sea of runners: “Welcome to the 32nd annual Boilermaker Road Race!” Vivian disappears as joggers approach the starting line. She is 5-foot-1, no taller than an August cornstalk, but at age 51, she is determined to run nearly 6,500 miles.
That’s the distance from her home in Illinois to her son's front-line Army post in Iraq. “Every mile that I run, in my mind brings him that much closer to being home,” she explains.
So far, she’s logged more than a thousand miles since Brian went to war last January. Only 5,500 to go.
Vivian’s friends and family quickly realized she would need help covering that distance. Word got around. Soon, others who had kids in harm’s way started walking or running, adding their miles to Vivian’s so she could feel closer to a son very far from home.
Mothers in arms
Tammy Utley understands the pain of a life put on hold: Her own son, Nick, went to fight in Afghanistan. She drove half a day to cheer for a stranger.
“Vivian’s a military mom,” Tammy says simply. “I know what she’s feeling.”
Both mothers raised small-town sons who had never lived away from home. Brian grew up in Charleston, Ill.; Nick in Gowanda, N.Y. Both boys turned 20 under fire.
“Brian has lost friends over there,” Vivian tells Tammy as they trade pictures of their kids. “There’s not a lot of snapshots of him smiling.”
Pfc. Brian Bales trained as a radio communication systems security repair specialist. He is stationed in Kirkuk.
“When he was growing up,” I ask Vivian, “were you able to put your arm around him and take him away from danger?”
“Yes, that’s the tough part for any parent with children in a war — the feeling of helplessness,” Vivian replies.
“When your sons grow weary of war,” I ask, turning to Tammy, “how do you comfort them?”
“There’s nothing you can do for them,” Tammy says, gazing down at Nick’s photograph. “You can’t be there with them. Mothers understand that helplessness you feel.”
Vivian agrees. “How am I going to wake up every morning and not know whether my son’s alive or not?”
Tammy nods. “Is he coming home? Am I going to see him again? You sit and you wonder and you worry. You turn on the news and see everything that’s happening there. And you worry some more.”
“How am I going to come home from work,” Vivian wonders, “and not worry that there’s a government car parked in my driveway waiting for me?”
“At those times,” Tammy sighs, “when there’s nothing else you can do, you start walking or running. We are protecting our emotions, protecting how we feel, because we can’t protect our kids over there.” She manages a smile as she shuffles through her photographs. “This is Nick coming home.”
Vivian leans in. “Wow!”
“That was the first we saw him.” Tammy taps the photo with her fingernail.
It had been a long, dangerous journey home. Nick had been a New York National Guard driver in Afghanistan.
“The RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, hit the right side of my truck,” he wrote. “Two of ’em, one time.”
“Those were the bloody-shoes days,” Tammy admits. “You walk and you walk and you walk.” Until her feet bled, because no words could convey the fear she felt.
“Take out my heart. It could speak a lot better than my tongue,” Tammy says softly. “You can’t reach out and give them a hug.” So she hugs Vivian instead. And then adds the 140 miles she has walked to Vivian’s total.
Nick’s National Guard unit came back from Afghanistan, just as Brian’s Army division was shipping him to Iraq.
“My hope is that every mother’s story is going to end like mine,” Tammy says. “Their sons and daughters will come home. But in reality, that’s not always the case.”
So she keeps marching. Nick had a mission and now she does, too. “I feel I need to still keep walking and walk until we bring all the men and women home.”
Dual dog tags
“There are days when you just don’t feel like running,” Vivian admits. “Those are the days when I think about Brian and say, ‘He doesn’t get days off in Iraq.’ ”
Vivian fondles the dog tag around her neck. On it are inscribed these words: “Many miles may separate us, but know I’m always by your side. I love you.” Brian took one just like it to Iraq. Vivian vows not to take hers off until he comes home.
“Sometimes when I’m running, I think of that last mile Brian and I will do together. He once told me, ‘Mom, it’s not me that determines the outcome of your race. It’s you.’ ”
Determination is a better road map than Google ever made. Vivian charts her progress on the route to Iraq. Every 300 miles, she adds a new pair of feet.
Guess where Vivian and her army of moms are now? “We’re at 14,867,” Vivian says. She’s glowing.
“Whoa! Dang!” shouts Brian. He’s on the phone in Kirkuk.
“Yeah, pretty cool!”
“I’m already home,” he chuckles.
“Yes, you’re home.” Thanks to 300 people in 42 states, jogging and walking and donating their miles so one mom can feel closer to her son.
“I think that’s the power of a mother’s love,” Vivian says.
And not just the ones with kids in harm’s way. Even those whose kids have come home.