Sometimes the world of grief and loss becomes a small one indeed, and a map of it reveals unexpected connections between us.
Chuck Lewis, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the Marines, was driving in remote northwestern Montana last month when a tiny American flag caught his eye. He and his wife, Linda, stopped to check it out and Lewis was electrified to see a yellow ribbon tied to the flag carried the name of another Marine sergeant — Sgt. Jon Bonnell, who died Aug. 6, 2007 in Iraq.
It was a strange moment indeed, standing on the side of Highway 200 near Dixon, Mont. Lewis took the flag to try and find out more about it. He soon found the Project America Run website set up to track a cross-country journey by Army veteran Mike Ehredt intended to honor every American soldier who died in Iraq. That's 4,417 to date. ---
Ehredt, who now lives in Hope, Idaho, ran through here and western Montana in a rainy month of May.
Months later, under the baking Iowa sun, Larry Devine, news editor of the Daily Times Herald of Carroll, Iowa, recounts how Lewis, through his research, discovered Sgt. Bonnell had family in Fort Dodge. Lewis called them out of the blue to tell them about this far-away flag dedicated to their son. Sgt. Bonnell's father, also named Jon Bonnell, was dumbfounded. He, too, looked up the Project America Run website and was amazed to see that Mike Ehredt was running across Iowa early this month and would be in Glidden, just an hour south of Fort Dodge, on the sixth — the third anniversary of his son JJ's death.
JJ Bonnell was deployed in Anbar Province — a pretty restive place in 2007 — and was killed when he stepped on a land mine. He was a couple weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.
His father and a sister, 16-year-old Sarah, set out to find Ehredt somewhere along Highway 30 in Iowa. They found him in the town of Glidden.
"I shook his hand and gave him a big hug," Bonnell said. Bonnell said he's put JJ's flag, planted in Montana in May, in a box with his son's possessions.
Ehredt's run is largely obscure and ephemeral. Dozens of the flags he's placed alongside America's highways are already gone. People along the route, he reports in his blog, have taken them — singly or in armloads — to display in the shelter of roadside restaurants or home to research the individual soldiers honored on each flag.
But his encounter with the Bonnells is at least the third such he has mentioned where a surviving friend or relative has set out along the blue highways to meet him and to say thank you.
Also on Aug, 6, the brother of Lt. Col. Daniel Holland, a veterinarian killed in Baghdad, rode his bicycle down from Minnesota to meet up with Ehredt. He rode along for 12 miles, helping place flags and saluting the dead.
In late June Ehredt was running a remote stretch of road near Craig, Colo., when a black Dodge Charger slowly approached and pulled over.
Stepping out was Violet Kaylor, who had driven out of Hartselle, Alabama, a week earlier for the rendesvouz. Ehredt was ready to place a flag for her son, Army Cpl. Jon-Erik Loney, at milepost 114. Loney died near Hit, Iraq, Nov 28, 2006 when an IED blew up his vehicle. According to news accounts he had told his grandfather he had been in four previous IED blasts.
Ehredt and Loney's mother walked for awhile as she described her son. In his blog, Ehredt writes:
"I ask Violet to look around…..There are sheep grazing and lambs feeding and a creek runs nearby. A sheep wagon sits on the side of the hill. It is a beautiful place. A soothing, calm place to put her sons flag. It has always been an honor for me to serve this country 30 years ago and it was an honor to walk this mile for Jon-Eric (sic) with his mother. I cannot imagine her sadness and yet I see her love for her son. It was important for her to be here at Mile Post 114, to see her sons flag be placed and then to take him home."
There is a loose network being stitched together by his six months of steady running from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, stopping every mile to salute a fallen soldier. This stitchwork of memory and chance encounter is creating a war memorial like no other: fleeting and yet timeless, and one that sprawls like America embracing all of us.
In fact, just today he wrote about running past his home town in Illinois and spending a few days in the company of family before looking ahead to the final leg:
"This line of flags continues to grow as my brothers join me for a short section of the day and place flags also. They are now connected to the journey as are so many others. As one friend said in Iowa, the flags, in their unending weave, have become a memorial highway. So be it then."
NOTE: Ehredt is about to enter Indiana, the final 1,000 miles of his run from Astoria, Ore., to the Atlantic shore at Rockland, Maine.