When Rita and Ken Jerabek saw the men in uniform at their door one April morning in 2004, they knew their lives had changed forever. They were told that their son Ryan, not long out of high school and a Marine Corps private first class serving in Ramadi, Iraq, had been killed in an ambush.
Something would always be missing for the couple and for Ryan’s brothers. But a year or so later, Mrs. Jerabek came upon an idea she felt would honor her son’s memory while also helping others. She found it in his own words, back when he was a student at Pulaski High School near Green Bay, Wis.
In a speech class in 2002, he said: “I’d like to ask of you to thank those who fought and are fighting in the battles to keep this country at the pinnacle of freedom.” It became clear to Jerabek: “Ryan is wanting us to carry on what he had asked his fellow students to do.”
Three things came together as the idea developed: Ryan ran track in high school, staying in shape by running a four-mile route near the family’s home in rural Hobart, Wis.; he wanted to join the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated; and after military service, his plan was to go to college to become a high school history and social studies teacher.
In terms of carrying out something, “I didn’t know where to begin,” Jerabek says. But with the help of event planners and race organizers, Rita and Ken organized the first “Pfc Ryan Jerabek, USMC Memorial Challenge” – a four-mile footrace retracing Ryan’s training route. That was in 2006, when about 600 people participated. Since then, it’s become an annual event.
Last August, about 1,200 runners and walkers – children as well as adults – took part, including 18 marines from across the United States who had been in Ryan’s platoon. It was a five-year reunion for them.
Gold Star families – those who’ve lost somebody in war – have begun coming, too. “They’re able to introduce their loved ones to the group,” Jerabek says.
Proceeds from the event go to two causes Ryan and his family valued: the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial assistance to those of all uniformed services injured in post-9/11 combat and training, and the Pulaski Community School Education Foundation Inc., which makes small grants (typically $500) to local teachers for books and other equipment or special projects. For 2009, the proceeds totaled $7,400.
Parallel runs have been held by about 100 service personnel and civilians – including the US ambassador to Iraq – in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Airmen at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, ran their own Jerabek Challenge. And about 80 sailors from the San Diego-based USS Green Bay went to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton to run the race.
“It’s such an exciting day to see everybody gather in support of our troops, to remember the fallen, and to say ‘thank you’ to our military,” says Jerabek, who’s a nurse practitioner at a rural family practice clinic.
Rita Jerabek is also active with Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to troops serving overseas, and with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
These days Rita and Ken Jerabek have new concerns as well. Their youngest son Nick followed in his older brother’s boot steps. He’s a Marine Corps corporal now serving in Afghanistan.
Has the Jerabek Challenge helped ease the loss of Ryan?
Pausing, Jerabek says, “Yes, it has.”
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” she goes on. “But then I remember that it’s helping other people, so it is healing for me. And for me, it was important to do something that I think Ryan would be really proud of.”
“It’s helped his brothers too,” she adds, noting that with the run Ryan’s friends, Marine Corps buddies, and a growing number of strangers “in a spiritual way are retracing his steps.”