Among those paying their respects at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City this weekend will be seven friends with a big hearts, tremendous ambition, and very tired legs.
On Sunday, August 11, Duke University United States Army ROTC graduates Seth Brown, Phil Cotter, Kase Diehl, Jon Harless, Matt Jones, Michael Meehan, and Pat Thompson met at their alma matter and began a six-day, 500-mile run from Durham, NC, to New York City.
The band of former Blue Devils, who met as “wide-eyed cadets” and bonded over years of demanding training sessions, are due to arrive at One World Trade Center on Saturday, August 17. They’ll celebrate the relay with a recap party, where they’ll share photos and videos and emails they’ve received from supporters—many of whom have pledged money and help the intrepid athletes get closer toward their fundraising goal of $50,000.
As of Friday morning, the Freedom 500 initiative had brought in $33,165, or 66 percent of the overall goal. All proceeds go to The Mission Continues, a nonprofit committed to supporting post-9/11 veterans handle the challenges of returning to their communities.
“Our Nation’s wounded and fallen sacrificed for the buddies next to them,” the Freedom 500 team writes on its official website. “We wish to continue the fight for all our fellow Soldiers—those unscathed, wounded and killed alike. This fight has an added urgency as many veterans of current wars begin the daunting transition to life in the civilian world.”
The Freedom 500 began with a 5K fundraiser on Duke’s Chapel Quad. Over the course of the week, the runners have approached their mission like true soldiers. They’re using a “two-vehicle support system” that involves having one person “on the ground, pounding pavement 24-7,” while a van drives alongside as backup. Those in the second van, meanwhile, drive ahead and plan the route.
The seven have remained friends since their collegiate days, even as their commitments have landed them in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East. The Freedom 500 marks the first reunion for the whole pack. The run has taken them through Arlington National Cemetery and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where they met with some of the very people they’re looking to help.
“The strength of these soldiers and their families affected keeps us honest, humbled, and focused,” the Freedom 500 team writes. “We’ve been searching for an outlet for our collective purpose and energy that might, in some way, faithfully reflect the sacrifice they have made in our nation’s name.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg