Thursday, May 03, 2007

Going the Distance to Honor Marines

Marine Corps News April 25, 2007

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.-- People swim, cycle and run for a variety of reasons; for fun, fitness or competition. Capt. Andrew Christian, a Marine assigned to U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, does all three in memory of fellow warriors killed and injured in the Global War on Terrorism and to raise money to help support their families.

While deployed to Iraq in 2006 as a member of a Military Transition Team, the Neenah, Wisc., native was authorized two weeks of leave to return to the United States and run the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in June of that year. He completed the 26.2-mile run while carrying a 3 x 5 foot American flag and crossed the finish line in three hours and 23 minutes.

The flag Christian carried was in the back of a HMMWV in Iraq Feb. 20, 2006 when one of his teammates and fellow Marine, Staff Sgt. Jay Collado, was killed while en route to train soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 4th Brigade, 8th Iraqi Division.

Collado died from injuries sustained during an insurgent attack with an improvised explosive device and two other members of the team, 1st. Lt. Justin Waldeck and Staff Sgt. Chris Claude, were severely wounded.

Following the attack, Christian and his team discussed ways to honor their fallen and injured comrades and decided to raise scholarship money for Collado’s six-year-old daughter.

“We gained a lot of funds simply by word of mouth,” said Christian, the branch head for 1st Special Missions Training Branch, Marine Special Operations School, MARSOC. But to really get the word out, they had to advertise and find great Americans and corporations willing to donate to their cause.

Friends, family members and other supporters of America’s troops donated thousands of dollars when they learned of Christian’s commitment to carry the U.S. Colors during a marathon – and of his reasons for doing so.

“Carrying the flag is a way for me to honor Staff Sgt. Collado and show all Americans that our true heroes are making the ultimate sacrifice every day in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Christian said.

True to the amphibious tradition of the Marine Corps, the four-time marathon-runner would not be satisfied until he attacked his objective from the sea: He set his sites on the Ironman Arizona triathlon in Tempe, Ariz., and committed to carrying his U.S. flag through the harsh desert heat and 30-mile-per-hour winds for a marathon’s distance once again – but this time after swimming 2.4 miles to shore and completing a 112-mile bicycle ride.

Christian contacted a company that agreed to sponsor his cause to raise money, both for the daughter of his fallen teammate and for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. The sponsor then asked three-time Ironman World Champion, Peter Reid, to be Christian’s coach and prepare him for the competition.

With the memory of Collado’s death and his wounded teammates' lengthy rehabilitation process on his mind to motivate him, Christian began a rigorous four-month training plan that included training time with some of the top professional athletes in the Southern California area.

Triathletes must find ways to stay motivated throughout the months of extreme physical training required to complete an Ironman race. Christian found all the motivation he needed by thinking of his fellow Marines.

Christian often spent six or more hours per day bike riding and running to prepare, but he said there is no easy way to carry a flag. He carried the Colors on several runs early on in his training, but quickly realized the weight of the flag would cause him to suffer no matter what he did and instead focused his efforts on getting into top physical shape.

“An Ironman requires you to train at odd hours to get in your mileage. I spent a great deal of time swimming, riding and running between (3-7 a.m.),” Christian said. “Training like this is time consuming and forces you to develop a strict time-management schedule."

“In four short months, Reid took me from 177 pounds to 160 pounds and put me in the best shape of my life,” Christian said. “Without the support of Reid, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did.”

When race day finally arrived, Marines from Christian’s unit were on hand to show their support.

“It was truly an honor and a privilege to watch Christian carry the American flag during the race,” said Master Sgt. Charles H. Padilla, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of 1st SMTB, MSOS, MARSOC.

“To be there and watch him on the course, you get a good appreciation of what he accomplished and what type of man he is.”

While carrying the flag during the marathon potion of the triathlon, Christian received support from his fellow runners and spectators alike.

“I received comments like ‘Go USA’ and ‘We support the Marines,” Christian said. “I had several people stop, salute the flag and yell ‘Semper Fi!’ as I ran by.”

Throughout the race, the crowd’s cheers motivated him, and though the weight of the flag bore down on his arms and shoulders, Christian never gave up.

“The thought of not finishing didn’t cross my mind,” said the husband of 17 years and father of one. “I knew carrying the flag would make me suffer, but when you think about a wounded Marine’s situation, your pain subsides very quickly.”

Christian neared exhaustion as he entered the last 50 meters of the race and was joined by his 13-year old son who came to his father’s side to run the final stretch beside him.

“This is something my son will remember for the rest of his life. It was really special having him there at the finish line,” said Christian. “Training for this made me sacrifice a lot of time with my family, but they understood it was for a great cause.”

Christian crossed the finish line after 10 hours, 54 minutes of non-stop physical exertion with the American flag held high in remembrance of America’s fallen and in support of their families and surviving wounded warriors.

He finished the race 185th out of 2,066 entries.

“The memory of my fallen teammates gave me the motivation to finish strong,” Christian said.

“Christian is a natural leader and an exceptional role model, not just as a Marine, but in his personal and family life,” said Lt. Col. Anthony R. Herlihy, officer in charge, 1st SMTB, MSOS, MARSOC. “He upholds the highest standards for himself and inspires others to excel.”

Together, Christian and his team of fellow Marines have raised more than $30,000 dollars for Collado’s daughter and $50,000 for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

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