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Cyclist’s trip honors families of the fallen

Jennifer Marino, a retired Marine major, finished up a cross-country Gold Star ride to honor Gold Star Mothers–those who have lost sons and daughters in war. She started at Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived Friday, October 25, 2013 at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. ( REZA A. MARVASHTI / THE FREE LANCE-STAR )

Over nearly three months, and more than 2,600 miles on a bike, Jennifer Marino took the ride of a lifetime and a journey of remembrance.

Along the way, she met more than 50 mothers whose sons and daughters were killed in military service.

Marino, 37, a retired Marine Corps major, left on Aug. 10 from Camp Pendleton in Southern California, arriving at her final stop—the National Museum of the Marine Corps—in Triangle on Friday afternoon.

Friends, family and colleagues gathered around as she arrived with six other riders who accompanied her on the last leg of the trip. She had pedaled through Fredericksburg and Stafford County on the way.

Smiling and tired, Marino got off the bike, hugging each one of them as others in the group cheered. She didn’t say much because everyone there knew her story, and what made her get on the bike in the first place.

Among those waiting was Tina Klauser of Aquia Harbour in Stafford, whose husband, Fred, was Marino’s last boss in the Marine Corps.

“He just thought the world of her,” Klauser said. “When you’re with her, you can’t possibly be down.”

Klauser said she followed Marino’s Gold Star Ride progress online and on Facebook, reading about the mothers’ and families’ stories of loss, grief and resilience.

She says Marino’s journey put that into perspective, and is another way to ensure that the men and women who died won’t be forgotten.

“When a military member falls in battle, there’s a flurry of activity and a lot of people around them, but afterwards, they need to know that there are still people who’ve got your back,” Klauser said.

Carol Marino, Jennifer’s mother, who lives in Colorado, said, “It has been an amazing journey.”

She knows because she accompanied her daughter in a Subaru wagon loaded with the gear, spare tires and supplies they needed on the road.

The two were often joined by other riders at times along the way.

“Meeting the families was very moving,” she said. “Just to see what the different families were doing in the healing process was pretty amazing. Some are still feeling a lot of pain. Others are starting to focus outward.”

Those, she said, “seem to be the ones having the most healing when they can finally focus on something else.”

Many of those, she learned, have started foundations and scholarships.

In an interview during a break on the road earlier this week, Marino said a previous boss’ cross-country ride planted the seed for her venture. Then, Marino heard Kathy Hanley—a mother who had lost her son, Ryan Lane, a Marine sergeant, in Afghanistan in 2009—speak to a group of injured service members.

“I wanted to make the ride about something bigger than me,” Marino said.

Hanley’s “biggest fear was that her son’s memory would be forgotten. This was the way she keeps the relationship alive, through his friends who survived,” Marino said. Hanley greeted Marino during a stop at Camp Lejeune, N.C., last week.

Said Marino, “I thought there must be a lot out there who share the same concerns,” and that led to her link with with American Gold Star Mothers Inc.

Marino had retired after 15 years in the Marines, two months before starting out from California. She planned to cover 17 states in 77 days.

One highlight of the trip was meeting two families during a stop in New Mexico.

She met and stayed overnight with Brad and Becky Christmas in Wagon Mound, N.M., in early September. Their son, Todd, an Army captain, had been killed in a helicopter training accident in Waco, Texas, in 2006.

The group planned to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in nearby Angel Fire, N.M., where Becky knew of another gold star family, Pat and Carol Harris. Their son, Shane, a Marine lance corporal, was killed in Iraq in 2006. A ski resort at Angel Fire, where Harris worked, has a run dedicated to him.

“I got to meet with the Harris family and Becky Christmas. The families were so amazed we wanted to hear their stories,” Marino said.

Now that she’s done, Marino will start her next challenge: taking over as executive director of the Boulder Crest Retreat for military and veterans’ wellness in Leesburg.

“I have my dream job waiting for me,” she said.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com 

ABOUT MARINO

Jennifer Marino grew up in Colorado, attended the Naval Academy and received her commission in the Marines 1998. She was a helicopter pilot, served two tours of duty in Iraq, served with the Presidential Helicopter Squadron HMX–1 at Quantico, and as an aide to Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

She retired at the rank of major earlier this year and will be taking a job with a veterans’ services agency in Leesburg. She now lives in Arlington.

GOLD STAR MOTHERS

American Gold Star Mothers Inc. was founded in 1928 in honor of the gold stars that families hung in their windows to honor deceased veterans.

Among its goals, to “perpetuate the memory of those whose lives were sacrificed in our wars.”

More on Gold Star Mothers: goldstarmoms.com

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