Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Gift From An American Soldier

I was reminded again on Sunday morning just how much of an impact the life of one can have on the lives of others. I participated in the Memorial Run/Walk that the family of Lt. Dennis Zilinski II has organized every year for the past five years since Lt. Zilinski at age 23 died in combat in Iraq while in the service of this country. Prior to Sunday I had last run a race in New Jersey two Sundays earlier - on the 24th of October. I had run in a race in Long Branch on a morning that was remarkably warm for late October. It was almost balmy. In other words it was nothing at all like this past Sunday.

November's first Sunday dawned windy and cold here in the State of Concrete Gardens - at least in the parking lots of the Garden States Art Center in Holmdel. While the mercury did its best to avoid rising and the wind did its best impression of one bad whistlin' mutha, neither the lack of absence of warmth nor the abundance of breeziness did a damn thing to temper the enthusiasm of the folks running in the event, those putting on the event and those doing yeoman's work as the volunteers who assisted in the running of it.

There was an exceptionally moving pre-race ceremony that lasted close to one hour and featured a pipe and drum corps, a high school chorus that looked to me (judging by the different letterman's jackets the boys and girls were wearing) to be comprised of students from a number of different schools and there was a fly-over by a New Jersey State Police helicopter. There were presentations of scholarship awards and there were two of the most moving speeches I have ever heard in my memory about the young man in whose name everyone had gathered. The first of the speeches was given by Lt. Zilinski's best friend at West Point, a young man named Captain Kramer, and his description of the friend he knew and the friend he still misses badly was stirring. He made it through his remarks without crying. Not all of us in the crowd were so fortunate.

A short time after Captain Kramer completed his remarks, Lt. Zilinski's mother spoke. Among the things she shared with the crowd were excerpts from his "final letter" home. She explained to the crowd that now when a unit is going to be sent off into a combat zone prior to them leaving each member of the unit composes a "last" letter. If that serviceman or servicewoman is killed in combat, then the letter is delivered to the fallen soldier's family. I write every day and I know not how one has the wherewithal to compose such a thing.

Lt. Zilinski had and upon his death in Iraq on 19 November 2005 the letter was presented to his parents. The excerpts she read aloud were nothing short of heartbreaking - words of a son expressing his sadness to his parents at a life that was not as long as he would have hoped but moreover expressing his gratitude to them for giving him the tools to live a full, rewarding and above all else a happy life. Two days later I am still at a loss as to which I find more remarkable: his ability to write such a letter or her ability to read it aloud without breaking down. I think I will consider it a draw and move on.

Sunday was a remarkable day. The race was very well-attended. Lt. Zilinski was a captain of the swim team at West Point and this year's edition of the USMA swim team attended the race en masse and ran together. Other colleges and high schools were well-represented as well. There was a class (Class 80) from the Monmouth County Police Academy who ran together over the 3.5 mile course. There were countless veterans and active duty military and law enforcement members who ran as well.

The course over which we ran was without exception the hardest, most challenging course I have run on in the year or so since I started doing this on a regular basis. In his pre-race remarks, the event's emcee described the course as "daunting". That it was. But probably it was appropriately so. For while I never had the pleasure of meeting a young man who sounded nothing short of extraordinary, I certainly got the vibe from listening to those who spoke of him and about him on Sunday morning that the only way to honor him appropriately was to design a course that would challenge those who tackled it to the fullest every step of the way. It was, after all, the manner in which he lived his life.

And for a little while on Sunday morning in the cold and wind of Holmdel New Jersey, I did as well. And I am most assuredly a better man for it. All because of the too-short life of an extraordinary young man and the extraordinary men and women who served before him, who served beside him and who shall serve in the future.

I'm just tryin' to be a father, raise a daughter and a son
Be a lover to their mother, everything to everyone.
Up and at 'em bright and early, I'm all business in my suit
Yeah I'm dressed up for success, from my head down to my boots.
I don't do it for the money, there's bills that I can't pay
I don't do it for the glory, I just do it anyway
Providing for our future is my responsibility
Yeah I'm real good under pressure, being all that I can be.
And I can't call in sick on Mondays
when the weekend's been too strong
I just work straight through the holidays
and sometimes all night long
You can bet that I stand ready when the wolf growls at the door
Hey I'm solid, Hey I'm steady, Hey I'm true down to the core.



Anonymous said...

Adam, I have had the pleasure of knowing Dennis since the day he was born. I am a close family friend and have worked as a volunteer for the run each of the five years.I appreciate your wonderful words and enjoyed reading it! God bless you and please come back next year and help us keep Dennis' memory and life going! Thanks again, Carol Covert

Adam Kenny said...


Thank you for the kind words. I never met Lt. Zilinski and came to understand after spending that morning in the company of many who did just how much I missed.

I hope that your family and his family each enjoys a peaceful, safe and Merry Christmas.

Adam Kenny