One life. One flag. One mile. For those whose lives and dreams were sacrificed. A memorial, a silent symbol of thanks, to those who gave their lives in service to their country.
That’s what is driving U.S. Army veteran Mike Ehredt in his quest to cross America on foot, planting a flag every mile he walks and runs to honor the memories of more than 4,500 military dead in the Iraq war.
On Thursday, that quest brought Ehredt to Missoula by way of U.S. Highway 93.
Already, it has been a long journey.
During a break while working for the U.S. Postal Service in Colorado some three years ago, he was looking through obituaries in a newspaper. He came across several Iraq war casualties and wondered what he could do as one person to honor all who had died there.
“We have a Vietnam wall, we have a World War II memorial, what could my tribute be to them?” Ehredt asked. “Nothing political, just to say thank you.”
A longtime fitness buff devoted to running, biking and canoeing, he quickly decided on a cross-country excursion to pay tribute.
Then came 2 1/2 years of planning and preparation before Ehredt touched the wheel of his jogger stroller in the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Ore., on May 1 to start a journey scheduled to end 4,514 miles away in Rockland, Maine, in mid-October.
For every mile of Ehredt’s route, there is a flag labeled with the name, branch of service, rank, age and hometown of a service man or woman killed in Iraq.
Hosts meet him at the end of each day, 157 of them.
“They pick me up, they take me home, they feed me dinner (and) breakfast,” he said. “I manage (to feed) myself during the day.”
Boxes of 300 flags are waiting every 10 days along the trail.
Heading into Missoula Thursday, the 49-year-old Ehredt said he has gone through a lot of rain, some hail, but no snow so far, wearing shorts and a bright yellow top throughout.
“I’m looking forward to Nebraska and Iowa,” he said, referring to the flat country and what should be warmer and more humid conditions once he gets there in July.
Ehredt admits most people have no idea what he’s doing until they ask him.
“A lot of people think I’m pushing a baby down the highway,” he laughed.
But once they figure it out, the response has been “very sincere, very gracious and very thankful.”
While he didn’t conceive of the idea as a fundraiser, it has turned out to be one for an organization called Honoring Our Veterans that educates the public about the needs of wounded and disabled veterans and provides private rehabilitation programs.
So far, around $25,000 has come in. Miscellaneous donors have helped cover the cost of staging the event.
“In a sense it’s a vet helping a vet,” said Ehredt, an Army veteran.
Ehredt will head south from Missoula Friday, with a stop planned in Stevensville. He will cross into Idaho on Memorial Day and work his way through parts of Wyoming and Colorado before reaching Nebraska and heading due east.
It’s a great way to see the country, he said.
“That’s why I didn’t want to have a car with me,” Ehredt said. “You just can’t experience the country that way. You notice a heck of a lot more. You hear a lot more things. You meet people.”
It has had its off moments, however.
Ehredt has seen one bear so far, and earlier Thursday was “tooling along” near Ravalli and nearly ran over a rattlesnake.
“The buggy spins this way (and) I jumped out in traffic,” he said. “Luckily nobody (was) coming.”
There was no special training regimen prior to leaving on his journey. When he went on runs it would be for two or four hours tops.
“I don’t believe you have to go out and do a lot of miles to do this every day,” he explained. “You have to listen to your body and take care of it (and) let it adapt.”
While it remains difficult for him to comprehend the number of flags and miles, Ehredt said he “can wrap his head around the next one down the road and I can deal with that.”
“It’s been spiritual, magical,” he said.