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Honoring the Greatest: Madison Marathon Supports Badger Honor Flight

 Contemplation and reflection among memorials in Washington, D.C. © 2014 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Clint Thayer

Contemplation and reflection among memorials in Washington, D.C. © 2014 Focal Flame Photography | Photo credit: Clint Thayer

Service. Commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. 

These are words that have deep meaning to the running community. They are also integral to the U.S. military service personnel, veteran, and civilian support community. 

On November 9, 2014 – in honor of Veteran’s Day - both communities will join together in two ways. First, funds raised at the Madison Marathon will benefit its charity partner, Badger Honor Flight. Second, the official race starter will be Sgt. Ross Gundlach (retired, US Marine Corps) and retired military service K9 Casey, who worked together as a team while serving in Afghanistan. 

Explaining that the spring Madison Marathon events were chosen to coincide with Memorial Day and fall events with Veteran’s Day, Madison Festivals Inc. president Rita Kelliher said, “We chose a charity that would bring attention to the military veterans.” 

Kelliher had personal experience with Badger Honor Flight, which serves 11 counties in Wisconsin as part of the nationwide Honor Flight network. Badger Honor Flight is dedicated to ensuring that WWII, Korean War, and terminally ill veterans from any war have the opportunity to see the memorials in Washington, D.C., that have been erected in their honor. Four flights a year bring veterans and one companion each to Washington, D.C., where they visit war memorials and monuments on the Mallway and in Arlington National Cemetery. All expenses are covered for the veterans in gratitude for their service, and their companions pay a $500 fee out of pocket. 

How many veterans has Badger Honor Flight served? According to president Brian Ziegler, “A total of 1,514 so far. Our goal is to take every WWII and Korean veteran [in the region who applies],” said Ziegler. Each flight takes approximately 85 to 80 veterans, and the waiting list is currently over 500 veterans. “We’re flying as fast as we can,” said Ziegler. 

Considering the advanced age of World War II veterans, speed is of the essence. But the planning stage for each flight is orderly, not rushed. “Our planning really starts once we receive a veteran’s application,” said Ziegler. Each application is reviewed and prioritized, with World War II and terminally ill veterans receiving top placement due to urgency. A medical advisory team of “a couple dozen” healthcare providers also reviews applications to ensure that the rigors of travel would not weigh too heavily on the veterans. Once a flight spot becomes available, veterans and companions (referred to as guardians) are re-contacted to confirm their interest, availability, and whether they feel capable of traveling. 

“There are tons of memories” from the flights, said Ziegler, recounting a trip in which a father and son were met at the World War II Memorial by the late Senator Daniel Inouye. Sen. Inouye was the second longest-serving senator in U.S. history, representing Hawaii in the Senate from 1962 until his death in 2012. “The Badger Honor Flight veteran and Senator Inouye had both been in the same hospital together” after being injured during World War II, said Ziegler. 

As memorable as the nation’s capital might be for veterans, the return trip is often the highlight. “It all culminates in the welcome home at the airport,” said Ziegler. “I had a veteran at this last flight tell me that all he was expecting was his wife to pick him up at the airport.” Instead, he was met at the airport by a crowd of 5,000 people cheering - plus a brass band. 

For Ziegler, those moments are where it all the effort comes together. “A lot of these veterans never got the welcome home that others did,” he said. “They never got the ticker tape parade.”

 Sgt. Gundlach and Casey on duty. Photo courtesy of Ross Gundlach.

Sgt. Gundlach and Casey on duty. Photo courtesy of Ross Gundlach.

For Madison Marathon official race starter Sgt. Ross Gundlach, a homecoming after serving on active duty in Afghanistan felt hollow and incomplete without the companionship of his military service canine, Casey. 

The pair had worked together as an IED detection team, relying on the incomprehensible sensitivity of Casey’s nose to warn of danger from explosives. “She was one of the best,” said Gundlach. “I wouldn’t be talking to you…or possibly be alive,” had it not been for Casey’s acumen in identifying IEDs. The bond between handler and K9 was so strong that Gundlach promised his dog that he would find her again after they both returned stateside. 

Gundlach was a man of his word. “We were separated 333 days from the time that I got back from Afghanistan,” he said. At that point, the tables were turned: Gundlach had to detect the whereabouts of his partner, albeit relying on networking rather than nosework. He located her in Iowa where she had been acquired by the Iowa State Fire Marshal's Office as an explosives detection service K9. 

Gundlach began a letter-writing campaign, explaining his commitment to his four-legged partner. Word spread to the Iowa Elk’s Association, a service group supporting veterans, who agreed to donate the $8,500 replacement cost for another service dog. Officials with the Fire Marshal’s Office then summoned Gundlach to the state Capitol in Des Moines for a surprise ceremony to reunite him with his beloved dog. When she saw Gundlach, Casey burst into a fury of joyful whimpering, tail-wagging, and face-licking. 

Today, Gundlach is a full-time student in Madison while he pursues a business degree. When not attending class, he cares for Casey. “I wake up, run together, we go to the park… Anything that’s not beneficial to her happiness I don’t do,” said Gundlach. 

As he cares for a K9 veteran, Gundlach is well aware of the work that Badger Honor Flight does to care for human veterans. “What they do is invaluable,” said Gundlach. “You’re talking about the greatest generation, and this particular war and the monument they’re going to see – people 70 and younger just can’t even imagine” the loss and sacrifices that occurred, particularly during World War II. “We owe it to them,” he said.

Gundlach and Casey will both be present at the start of the Madison Marathon to officially wish racers safe passage. 

He feels a kinship with runners, pointing out, “I can tell you running and the Marine Corps go hand in hand. If you weren’t a runner before you joined the Marines, well, you are now.” Standard training for dog handlers and their K9s is to run together five miles a day, five days a week. 

“The dogs will outrun the guys every time,” said Gundlach. 

The organizers of Madison Marathon encourage all participants to donate to Badger Honor Flight. A $5 donation can be made via cell phone by texting “FESTIVAL” to 20222.  Badger Honor Flight also needs energetic volunteers to assist with administration, medical, fundraising, and publicity to get the word out to get every veteran that wants to apply to go on a flight. For more information on volunteering with Badger Honor Flight, click here

- by Robyn M. Perrin