Supposedly, we live in a big old world. But it can be astonishing how things that are wildly disparate can suddenly veer into close proximity with each other.
Mike Ehredt and Ernie Stensgar could not be more dissimilar. The former is an uber-conditioned ultra-marathoner. A white guy and former postal clerk running across the country. The latter is more than a decade older, a Coeur d'Alene Indian to the core, a Marine awarded the Purple Heart after getting shot in Vietnam.
They have never met, even though Ehredt, as part of his coast-to-coast journey, Project America Run, ran north on U.S. Highway 95 right through Plummer, Idaho, in mid-May. He passed just yards away from Stensgar's office in Coeur d'Alene Tribal headquarters and jogged even closer past a monument the Tribe was building for its soldiers who fell in war. The monument was getting its finishing touches when Ehredt ran through on the drizzly morning of May 18.
Ehredt and Stensgar do share one thing: Each has altered our concept of Memorial Day. (Actually, they share two things, as both are military veterans.)
Stensgar, reflecting on war and warriors, realized that tribal members went to war with the idea of protecting their homeland. This was especially true in the days prior to their homeland being known as the United States of America.
So the memorial wall was thrown open to soldiers, warriors, protectors going all the way back, adding thousands of years to the timeline of service to one's homeland. ---
"The men and women whose names are inscribed on these rocks behind me come from this land," Stensgar said in a moving speech Saturday. "Their roots are deep. They saw this land when it was virgin ground, before it was cultivated, before the forests were harvested, before the rivers were dammed.
"They defended this land from outside encroachment — from other tribes and, yes, even from the Americans," he read to a crowd that included Idaho's Gov. Butch Otter and senior U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. It is estimated the Coeur d'Alene have lived on their land for as many as 10,000 years.
Ehredt has also dramatically expanded the scope of Memorial Day, for he experiences a memorial moment roughly 30 times a day, every day, for about six months. Ehredt, beginning at the shores of the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Ore., has placed a small American flag in the ground every single mile for roughly 850 miles through June 1. He intends to place a flag for every American soldier who died in Iraq, all 4,392 of them. He will place the last flag for the first U.S. soldier to die in Iraq, Marine Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin, at the Atlantic Ocean in Maine.
"The first was an encounter with a black Audie with dark windows that pulled over. A huge guy gets out and is waiting for me and holding the hand of his young daughter. I notice the license plate and it says 'Marine Veteran' He has a thick Polish accent and tells me how it was an honor for him to serve our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. He thanks me and then…..he salutes with wet eyes. I am caught off guard and salute back. About an hour later outside a Stop N’ Go a young man walks up and says hello. ... He tells me of his brother who is serving in Iraq on his 2nd tour. ... He thanks me and then he says 'You deserve this' and crisply, sharply he comes to attention and salutes me, looking at me with wet eyes also. I am stunned again, salute back and then go into the store to get my Gatorade. My eyes are watery, my composure lost for a brief moment. When I come out Peggy says it about made her cry….We run down the bike path to Stevensville in the wind and rain and wind and rain and wind and rain."
On Saturday, Ehredt wrote an even more personal post when he realized he was holding a flag for Sgt. Andrew Lancaster, a young man from his hometown of Stockton, Ill. Lancaster was among four soldiers who died in Iraq in August 2007, when they stormed a booby-trapped house while going after a sniper who had killed one of their comrades. Lancaster was 23. Ehredt writes that he remembers Lancaster as a standout football and basketball player who was in high school during the same years Ehredt refereed high school sports in his home town. He muses that maybe he called a foul on Lancaster, or maybe he watched Lancaster make a terrific tackle. It was jarring, he writes, that:
"... fate would have it that I would bear his flag on Montana Sate Road 200 and place it at milepost 23, his would be the 700th flag placed on my journey. His name and flag overlook a beautiful valley and the Clark Fork river. ... Words are not often eloquent enough to bear the gratitude afforded so many who have been taken from us. In time the green grass around his flag here in Montana will turn to brown and then the snows will come but in my eyes he will be there on the hillside linked arm in arm with those next to him whose flags are but a mile away. They will continue to protect us for all time and will not be forgotten."
To Stensgar, too, the sacrifice of soldiers becomes personal and timeless. Concluding his remarks to a crowd of 500 on a wet, gray day, he says, "We knew these men and women whose names are printed on the walls. We are Coeur d'Alene. They are our sons and daughters. They are our grandfathers and grandmothers. They are our brothers and sisters. They are our cousins, they are our friends and this is our way to pay tribute to them and say 'Thank you. Lem-lmtsch (Salish for thank you)."