Five days before Christmas in 2005, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Cleary was riding in a Humvee near the town of Ad Duluiyah, Iraq, when an explosive device along the roadside detonated, killing Cleary and one of his comrades.
A native of Dallas, Pa., Cleary joined the Army within a week of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was 24 when he died.
Cleary was beloved by all who were fortunate to know him, including Breckenridge natives Taylor and Eric Janes. The brothers, ages 29 and 27, respectively, attended Hamilton College in upstate New York. Taylor Janes was a freshman when he met Cleary, who was a senior at the time.
On Thursday, Taylor Janes described Cleary, whom everyone called Mikey, simply as a solid guy and a mentor who helped the recent Colorado high school graduate adjust to his new life at Hamilton.
Although every loss of life is tragic, Cleary’s death was exponentially more difficult to comprehend for his closest friends. Cleary and his company had just completed their last patrol. They were en route to an Army base outside Ad Duluiyah for a 10-day layover, before boarding a plane back to the states to reunite with family, friends and loved ones.
It would have been Cleary’s last tour of duty.
Cleary’s death rocked the Hamilton College campus and was particularly hard for his best friend and college roommate, Jon Bellona.
Bellona felt like something needed to be done to honor Cleary, but neither he nor a small team of close friends and family, including the Janes brothers, Cleary’s sister, Shannon, and his fiancée, Erin, knew exactly what to do.
They ultimately decided on a run, not just a run for Cleary, but a cross-country “Run for the Fallen” to honor all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who died in the Iraq war.
When the planning and logistics had finally been worked out in 2008, there were close to 4,100 fallen soldiers on the team’s list. They were dedicated to run a mile in honor of each one of them, stopping to mark each mile with an American flag and a personalized biographical postcard.
On Flag Day — June 14, 2008 — Bellona and his team of runners set out from Fort Irwin, Calif., for Arlington National Cemetery. They ran in the order of each soldier’s death, zigzagging through 13 states for 72 days.
The team didn’t run in favor of or in protest against the war and refused any political affiliation. They didn’t even publicize what they were doing, but it didn’t take long before word spread and the team found themselves in the company of veterans, police and firefighter escorts, or family members. Some ran with the team for long stretches, while others traveled great distances to run a mile in honor of the “Mikey” they lost in their own lives.
“As a civilian and someone who has never served in the military, I’ve always felt some disconnect with what it truly means to serve your country,” Taylor Janes said. “It was very emotional and powerful to share this experience with family members and friends of fallen soldiers, even the ones who could only join us for one specific mile.
“I’m glad we could provide the service, I’m glad the space was there to do that and I think they were very grateful.”
In addition to people they picked up along their journey, Bellona and his team were joined by Film for the Fallen, a small, Brooklyn-based film crew that was founded to follow and document the Run for the Fallen team.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday at City Hall in Breckenridge, the documentary “To Them That’s Gone: A Film for the Fallen” will air during the 33rd annual Breckenridge Festival of Film.
The title of the documentary derives from a Cleary family toast, “To them that’s here; to them that’s gone; to them we’ll see again,” which became a common refrain during Run for the Fallen, the web site www.tothemthatsgone.com stated.
The film, which already received top honors at the 2012 New York City Independent Film Festival, including best documentary, best director and best documentary feature, is being featured in Breckenridge thanks to a sponsorship by Stan Miller Inc. and the Janes family.
Dr. Peter Janes, surgeon with Vail-Summit Orthopaedics, his wife, Patti, and daughter, Rebekah, joined the Run for the Fallen team in Southern Colorado and again in Arlington, Va., for a portion of the run.
“In the face of an awful lot of their friends dying, these non-military people — who thought they needed to do something, but they didn’t know what — set out on their own and ended up doing something extraordinary,” Peter Janes said.
For more information about Run for the Fallen, visit www.runforthefallen.org. To view a short preview of the film, visit www.tothemthatsgone.com.