CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
A Marine presses her left riding shoe into a peddle and twists until a loud click signifies it’s properly seated. She leans slightly to the left and then to the right to give her calves, hips and quadriceps a final stretch before starting. She’s ridden before, but this time is different. This time it’s for the fallen.
Jennifer Marino, a retired major, is cycling more than 2,700 miles in commemoration of service members killed in combat.
“I wanted to find a way to honor the sacrifices of our fallen heroes and their families,” said Marino, who will be stopping in 17 states over the span of 77 days to meet with American Gold Star Mothers and their families.
Marino said she intends to visit more than 40 homes to learn about the loved ones they’ve lost.
“I want to learn more about them and their fallen heroes by listening to their stories and raise awareness of the gold star families,” said Marino.
Marino said that she will also be achieving a personal goal of riding from coast to coast and hopes to put the stories she hears while on her journey in a book someday.
“I think her ride is an incredible undertaking and I think it really does uphold the highest traditions of the Marine Corps in that she is taking time to go and meet with these families and bring awareness to them,” said Van Brinson, a retired Marine who served with Marino at two duty stations.
Marino said Brinson inspired her to ride across country when she tracked his progress in the 2010 Sea to Shining Sea ride with World Team Sports while they were stationed together at Marine Corps Air Station Quantico.
“I think this will help sustain the memories of the fallen for the children and comrades of these service members,” said Brinson.
While serving as a team leader at a course called Semper Fi Odyssey, Marino met a woman who she said shared a powerful story about her fallen son with wounded, ill and injured service members.
“Kathy Hanley’s son, Sgt. Ryan Lane, died in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2009 and her message to the service members in the program was about the survivors guilt they may be feeling,” said Marino “She said that the best way they can honor their fallen comrades is to live their lives well and draw close to the families that have lost someone.”
Marino said her story had such a strong impact that it sparked the idea of sharing people’s experiences on the ride to help others who have suffered the same loss.
“The other thing that Kathy said to me that really struck a chord was that her biggest fear was that her son would be forgotten,” said Marino. “Her saying that made me wonder if there were a lot of gold star families that have the same concern and would be interested in sharing their stories and memories with me as I travel across the country.”
Marino consulted with Hanley on the idea of talking to other gold star families about their experiences with losing a loved one to combat and Hanley put her in contact with the American Gold Star Mother’s national board.
Marino sent a letter to the organization explaining her idea and it was published in their newsletter.
“I’m interested in facilitating a connection with the families by expressing to them, in a tangible way by riding to their homes, how much their loss means to me and how much I appreciate the sacrifice their loved one made,” said Marino. “I really want to give them a way to tell their stories.”
Some of the families Marino is visiting are relatives of service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has taken rubbings of many of the names and will hand-deliver them to their respective families along the way.
“Most of the families have loved ones names on the Northwood memorial wall and I’ll be delivering many of them personally on this ride,” said Marino. “I think that there is something powerful about taking a name from a headstone or memorial wall and bringing that to life with sharing stories of the person that name represents.”
Several families reached out to Marino after hearing about or reading the newsletter and have invited her to stay at their homes during her 77-day venture.
“This is a great tribute. Jennifer is reaching out to those who have paid a heavy price and I deeply appreciate people like her,” said Jerome Gourley, a gold star father who asked that Marino visit his family in Utah. “We are honored and grateful to be able to help her in any way we could. We wanted her visit to be about all of the fallen heroes and veterans who have and still serve our nation. Jennifer has a great story to tell.”
Marino said the distance will be physically taxing and explained where she would draw her motivation.
“I’ve ridden as many as 75 miles before but I haven’t been riding day-in and day-out lately, so this ride is going to be a struggle both mentally and physically,” said Marino. “I think what I’m using to fuel my motivation is the fact that I’m riding in honor of all those who can’t cross things off of their bucket list anymore.”
Marino said that a few of her friends will be joining her in specific areas during the ride.
“One of my best friends, who is a Marine major from Twentynine Palms, is going to be with me at the start and through a couple of tough days in the desert,” said Marino, a week before she started her trip.
Marino expressed that she isn’t doing this alone and appreciates all the help she has received to make the journey possible.
“There have been many supporters for this effort. Seth Sirbaugh with Tribe Collaborative in Fredrick Maryland helped me by designing a logo in support of the project,” said Marino. “World Team Sports helped me with the route planning, communications and roadside regulations in individual counties. I wouldn’t be able to do this without organizations like these and American Gold Star Mothers.”