When you think of an Ironman athlete, you have to imagine unbelievable strength, determination, endurance and grit.
Those same qualities can be seen in Gold Star Families, so it only makes sense to put the two together. This weekend, participants in the Gold Star Initiative, a program that partners with the Ironman Foundation and wear blue: run to remember, will be competing at Ironman 70.3 in Santa Rosa, California.
"The Gold Star Initiative gives veterans and active-duty service members the chance to team up and honor Gold Star Families who have lost a loved one in the name of freedom. Through our partnership with wear blue: run to remember, a national nonprofit running community that honors the service and sacrifice of the American military, our Gold Star Families gain access to the wear blue: run community and programs, empowering them to process their grief and heal though running," said Sarah Hartmann, executive director of the Ironman Foundation.
"At Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa, we are deeply honored to support our three Gold Star Families and are grateful for our Gold Star Initiative Athletes who will carry the American flag to honor the service and sacrifice of Marine LCPL Travis Desiato, Air Force A1C Alfred Komlev and Air Force Senior Airman Jonathan Antoñio Vega Yelner," she continued.
One of the runners, Mike Ergo, will be running with friend Raleigh Desiasto in honor of Raleigh's late brother, Lance Cpl. Travis Desiato, who was killed in combat during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.
"Travis was in my unit," Ergo said. "We served together in the Marine Corps. I was in the 3rd platoon and he was in the 2nd platoon, but all of his best friends were in my command. He was very popular and well liked. Just a great guy."
When Ergo got out of the military, the weight of the survivor's guilt was too heavy to carry alone, he said.
"There were a lot of people killed that I thought were better Marines than I was. I felt so guilty that they died and I didn't. I didn't want to face their families, which made me feel even more guilty and ashamed," he shared.
After a long bout with alcohol and depression, Ergo knew he needed a better outlet. He found running and, more importantly, he found strength.
Ergo first met Raleigh in person at the Armed Forces Half Marathon on Memorial Day in 2017. Ironically, it was the first race in which he carried a flag.
"I got to the turnaround point, and all these people were waving flags," he recalled. "I asked someone if I could carry it, and they said sure."
Now, Ergo runs to honor Travis, and all of his fallen comrades. "I wear all their names on my jersey. Twenty-nine names. I honor them every time I run, and I can say to these families, 'Your son is still alive in my heart.' I feel inspired to make their sacrifice meaningful.
"I realized this was changing my life. I've talked to so many other veterans that carry the same grief. This is a way they can feel good about it," he said. "I tried to avoid these feelings, and all it did was make me more sad and more angry and more depressed. I realized that, at the base of it all, was because I had so much love. Racing has brought such a powerful purpose to my life. And I know it can help others too."
The Ironman Foundation is a global charity group that has raised more than $50 million through charitable giveback programs to more than 8,300 regional, national and nonprofit initiatives. Learn more about its Gold Star Initiative here.
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