COUNCIL BLUFFS — Gravel crunched beneath Michelle Benavidez's running shoes as she walked beside Railroad Highway outside Council Bluffs, more than 600 miles from where she started walking in Fort Carson, Colo., and more than 400 miles from where she is going, Marseilles, Ill., where she will see her dead soldier son's name on a memorial wall.
Pickup trucks roared by on the rural two-lane blacktop. Red-winged blackbirds trilled from roadside ditches and farm fields. Wind whispered in the cottonwoods. The morning sun began to bring out beads of perspiration on the faces of Benavidez and her walking buddy, Debbie Quackenbush, founder of the Colorado nonprofit group American Military Family Inc.
The women trudged on.
The two are on a mission, along with Benavidez's husband, Dan, and Quackenbush's son, Ryan.
They walk to honor Army Staff Sgt. Kennith Mayne, Michelle Benavidez's son, who was killed in Iraq, and to honor other fallen soldiers. They walk to urge their fellow Americans to help the families left behind, as well as surviving veterans and their families.
“We're trying to challenge people to step up to the plate and do something, do anything, just do something,” Michelle Benavidez said.
“One percent serves (in the military); we're trying to raise the awareness of the other 99 percent,” Debbie Quackenbush said. “We have a very privileged country now, where people can sit back and be complacent. No. Not acceptable. Reach out and do something. ... Our kids and our families need help.”
Mayne, 29, was killed Sept. 4, 2008, by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. He was on his second deployment to Iraq.
Mayne had joined the military at his parents' urging. He had been in trouble and was considering dropping out of high school.
“He picked the Army, which was a great fit for him,” his mother said as Council Bluffs slowly faded behind her Wednesday. “He's always been an adrenaline junkie, skiing, hunting, fishing, and everything. ... The Army took him from being a follower to being a leader. He became infantry and he loved it.”
She talked to him on the telephone two hours before he died. He had told her on a previous occasion that he was willing to die for his men, that it would be an honorable death. The topic of this day's conversation was lighter: Mayne wanted to know where his beef jerky was. It was on the way, Benavidez told him.
“The last words my son ever spoke to me were ‘I love you,'” Benavidez said. “I'm one of the lucky moms.”
A notorious practical joker, he had made it one of his last wishes that people wear Hawaiian shirts to his funeral. They complied.
American Military Family Inc. helped his mother cope with the grief. She joined the organization's board, and wants to raise money through the walk for the nonprofit's programs for Gold Star families and returning veterans.
But it's not just their organization for which the women seek donations and volunteers. Hundreds of nonprofits help veterans, active military and families, Quackenbush said.
“We are asking people to put their money and their involvement where their mouth is,” she said.
The Colorado contingent plans to traverse 1,080 miles. Michelle, 51, and Dan, 52, are taking turns walking with Debbie and Ryan. Someone is walking the entire way. The other two follow behind in a pace car. The past couple of days, the group camped in the city park in Neola, Iowa.
The four left April 13 from Fort Carson, Colo. They expect to be in Marseilles, Ill., June 15. There, they plan to participate in an annual ceremony at the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall, created in 2004 and maintained by Illinois bikers and veterans.
As they've crossed Colorado and Nebraska and ventured into Iowa, the walkers have encountered many acts of kindness and support. In North Platte, members of a reserve unit waited for them outside town, then walked into North Platte with them. VFW clubs have fed the walkers and given them places to stay. Patriot Riders bikers in Onawa, Iowa, heard about the trek, quickly put together a fundraiser, then drove more than an hour to deliver the proceeds to the walkers. People have stopped on the road to give them donations or to buy their red commemorative T-shirts.
Near Aurora, Neb., a Vietnam War veteran set them up on his rural property with utility hookups for their trailer, and cooked them a steak dinner. The walkers happened to be approaching Omaha just as a man named Jim Meier was helping organize the May 18 Families of the Fallen Dinner, and Salute Our Military baseball game at TD Ameritrade Park. Meier included the Benavidezes in both events. At the ballgame, Michelle Benavidez stood atop the third-base dugout and was recognized by the crowd of 15,000-plus.
“They put us on the Jumbotron and talked about our son and what we were doing,” she said. “It was quite a night.”
As generous as people have been, Quackenbush and Benavidez said most of their support has come from veterans, active-duty military and families. As they tread eastward into Iowa, they made clear they have miles to go to persuade the majority of Americans to help.
“I can't change what happened to my son,” Benavidez said. “I can do everything in my power to see that Americans don't forget those who are coming back.”
World-Herald researcher Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.
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