LOWER TOWNSHIP — Diane Ananian-Casey drove three hours Friday morning to stand by the side of a rural road just in time to represent a fallen soldier she barely knew.
U.S. Army Sgt. Timothy McGill, 30, of Ramsey, Bergen County, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21. He’s the latest New Jersey solider to die overseas.
“They will have a service in Ramsey next week. My best friend’s husband is his friend and my brother also knew him. My mother wanted to come, but she’s 90 years old,” Ananian-Casey said.
She spoke moments after 34 runners, all active military, stopped on Seashore Road and planted Hero Marker 009. The Run for the Fallen, which began Friday morning at Cape May Point and will end in Holmdel, Monmouth County, on Sunday, will plant hero markers for 209 New Jersey service members killed in battle, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s advertised as “One Mile, One Marker, One Hero,” but in truth the runners will cover 176 miles during the three days.
At many of the stops family and friends of the service member are present. Members of local VFW, American Legion and other veterans posts also come out.
Hundreds of schoolchildren honored Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate Sgt. Michael P. Scusa, killed by insurgents Oct. 3, 2009, at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, as his marker was delivered at the school.
But McGill’s death was so new, so fresh, that there was no family there. They were grieving at home. His body was still at Dover Air Force Base awaiting release to the family. Ananian-Casey and three members of the Greater Cape May Elks Lodge 2839 met the soldiers. The Elks put up the Gold Star Mothers who arrived for the event on Thursday night and made sure no hero marker site was left unattended.
“We don’t want any family to stand alone,” lodge member Ted Nulty said.
Pete Zamis, another lodge member and a Vietnam War veteran, praised the attention combat fatalities are getting. Zamis said it wasn’t like that after Vietnam.
“We weren’t recognized. It took us quite a few years to be acknowledged. I think this is a great thing. Vietnam had a loud minority and a quiet majority. Now people are behind the military,” Zamis said.
McGill, killed by an insurgent dressed in an Afghan Army uniform, was described as a “gentle giant,” who stood 6 feet, 6 inches and weighed 285 pounds. Ananian-Casey barely knew him but knew somebody had to be here.
“All these men and women sacrificed their lives for us, for our freedom,” she said.
The runners assembled at Cape May Point State Park, where Director Mike Simpson, of NJ Run for the Fallen, talked about the event. Simpson said most of those honored died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but a few died in other places, including Somalia, Lebanon and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
“This enables them to be honored and remembered. The whole concept is they not be forgotten,” Simpson said.
Mayor Mike Beck, a Vietnam War veteran, said remembering them is as important as honoring them, because it often provides comfort to the families.
“Losing a son or daughter is one thing, but nobody remembering what happened is worse,” Beck said.
That won’t be a problem for Scusa’s family. The student body at Lower Cape May Regional knows him well. The Class of 2005 planted a tree and put up a plaque in his memory.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. James Porch delivered the hero marker in front of the student body, reading his Medal of Valor heroism as 400 insurgents attacked the Army outpost in the Kamdesh District. He was killed lugging ammunition to his fellow soldiers under heavy enemy fire.
“We’ll never forget,” Porch told Scusa’s mother, Cindy Woodcard, as he delivered the marker.
The school choir, led by Sandra Beane Fox, sang God Bless America. Scusa's math teacher, Valerie Davis, recalled him running with a backpack full of bricks to get ready for joining the Army.
“All he ever talked about was how he wanted to protect his country,” Davis said.
The run tries to honor the fallen in their home towns where possible. The hero marker for Capt. Thomas Casey, of Cape May Point, was in the center of town overlooking scenic Lake Lily.
But the run takes a coastal route so this is not always possible. Vicki Baker, of Browns Mills, Burlington County, stood on Stevens Street in West Cape May for the runners to arrive with her son’s marker. Spc. Ryan T. Baker was killed in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003. Baker had another Gold Star Mother by her side. Suzette DeTulio, whose only child, Pfc. Ryan Christensen, was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. Christensen, of Spring Lake Heights, will he honored Sunday, Hero Marker 146.
“We met through our sons. We’re blessed our sons were remembered,” said DeTulio.
The Run for the Fallen began as a national movement in 2008. New Jersey held its first run in 2009. Simpson said it may be expanded in the future, possibly covering heroes from earlier wars.
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