DURHAM — The seven graduates of Duke Universitys U.S. Army ROTC program had long wanted to launch an endurance event to support soldiers who had served extended tours in the Middle East and needed help getting re-established back home.
Those ambitions crystallized last spring when a fellow soldier in the same company as two of the graduates lost his legs in Afghanistan.
Officers Phil Cotter and Matt Jones reached out to their fellow grads. Within minutes all were on board with a plan: A 500-mile relay run from Duke Chapel in Durham to the center of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked airliners toppled the World Trade Center towers.
The run began on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon in Durham after the seven paid their respects to Duke graduates who had fallen in service of their country. During the next six days, the seven will take turns running hourlong legs until they reach New York City. They each will run a minimum 12 miles a day to complete the challenge.
Sound daunting? Not to these guys, who call themselves The Freedom 500.
Its not how you are going to do it, said Seth Brown, a 2009 Duke graduate stationed at Fort Bragg. Its why you are going to do it.
The why is to raise money for The Mission Continues, a nonprofit started by another Duke alum, Eric Greitens 96, a former Navy SEAL. The nonprofit provides six-month community-service fellowships to veterans to help them transition to post-combat life.
Before the run began just after 3 p.m., the Freedom 500 had already raised $25,000 for the cause. A 5K support run held an hour earlier drew about 20 people and raised an additional $1,000, said Cathy Anna, a family friend and event planner who helped organize the fundraiser. A local agency, 501 Realty, picked up most of the event expenses at Duke Chapel, including the sound system for Crossover Drive, a band that played 70s rock for the roughly 100 people who turned out to send off the runners.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell was on hand to proclaim Sunday Freedom 500 Day in Durham; Gov. Pat McCrory issued a similar proclamation for North Carolina in a news release on Saturday.
The other Duke grads on the Freedom 500 team are Kase Diehl, Jon Harless, Michael Meehan and Pat Thompson, a senior intelligence officer in the Army Reserves who also serves as director of basketball operations for the Duke mens basketball program. While they all had kept touch over the years, the run is the first time all seven have been together since their days as cadets at Duke.
Thompson said the seven will be split among two RVs. The group of runners in each RV will complete a 12-hour shift, so that when one shift runs, the other sleeps. They used Googles walking map function to identify safer roads to run.
The Duke grads plan two stops on the route. One is at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.; the second is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to visit wounded veterans, including the soldier who sparked the run, Cotter said.