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Flaugh family members join Flaughless 5K organizer Georgia Meeker Sysouchanh for a photo at the end of Saturday’s event.

I am here for a hug, not water.”

With those words, a woman – of many dozens of people who stopped by the 8th Street home of Jim and Kathy Flaugh on Saturday – paused from walking the Flaughless 5K route to greet the parents of the soldier the event has honored since 2012.

Those stopping for hugs included family friends, relatives, classmates of Dan and many more.

Among the greetings Kathy calls the most inspiring are from people who were strangers before the first Flaughless 5K – people like Jeff and Jolene Niehaus of Edgewood, whose son, Marine Sgt. Eric Ausborn, died by suicide six months before Dan’s death. The two families have met annually during the Flaughless 5K – connected by both their sorrow and their desire to help other veterans facing PTSD and the invisible wounds of war. 

While Dan Flaugh’s parents were busy passing out water and receiving hugs from the participants of the 5th and Final Flaughless 5K, his friends and cousins were tearfully crossing the finish line at the end of the route.

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Connor Bendull and Libbie and Hanna Timmeran cross the Flaughless 5K finish line Saturday.

Libbie and Hanna Timmerman – cousins of Dan’s who like him, are part of the Vinton-Shellsburg cross country team – were the first females to cross the finish line. They did so together, accompanied by Libbie’s boyfriend, Connor Bendull, who had been running ahead with VS cross country teammate and overall race winner Nolan Haisman, but turned around so he could finish the race with Libbie and her sister.

A few people took photos of that inspirational moment; others were too busy wiping tears away.

Missing Dan comes in waves, and today we are drowning,” said Charley Cronk, one of Dan’s cross country teammates, who has worn one of Dan’s old VS CC t-shirts in each of the five races. Jim and Kathy Flaugh gave them to Charley after Dan’s death just after Christmas in 2011; the first Flaughless 5K took place the following fall. After five Flaughless 5K races, Charley has more shirts, and more medals from being a top three finisher several times.

‘Taps gets me every time’

For Kathy Flaugh, the tears came early and often on Saturday. She cried a bit when greeting friends who arrived at Riverside Park, and cried more during the opening Like the previous four, the fifth Flaughless 5K began with a brief ceremony, honoring Dan and all soldiers like him with a moment of silence, followed by Taps.

Taps gets me every time,” says Kathy. “It takes me right back to Dan’s funeral.”

Retrieving Freedom

This year’s event raised $16,000 for Retrieving Freedom, an organization that provides service dogs to veterans facing PTSD. Among local participants in that program is Marine Josh Mulder. Mulder was a member of “3/1,” the Third Battallion, First Marine Division, which suffered many casualties during his time in Afghanistan; years later, many of that unit’s veterans are still dealing with the impact of their injuries as well as PTSD. Mulder has attended funerals of unit members who have taken their own lives.

On Saturday, Mulder told the crowd about the impact of his service dog, Traveler. Before Traveler, he said, getting him to leave the house was like “pulling teeth.” But now, he said, he and Traveler do go many places, and Josh joked about his girlfriend often ends up looking for them both when they go grocery shopping.

Military celebrity among beneficiaries

Among the participants of Retrieving Freedom who lined up behind Josh as he spoke was a celebrity: Bobby Henline.

Although Henline did not speak during Saturday’s ceremonies, some in the crowd recognized him as a bit of a celebrity.

A Texas native, Henline, an Army veteran was the only survivor when his HUMVEE with five soldiers inside was destroyed by a roadside bomb in April of 2007. Burned over 38 percent of his body, Henline eventually lost part of his left arm. After recovering, he found healing in humor, becoming a stand-up comedian and a motivational speaker.

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Current and future Retrieving Freedom participants line up during the opening ceremony.

Henline served in Operation Desert Storm a quarter-century ago, and was injured during his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. Along with speaking tours – a group of VSHS students heard him in Cedar Rapids last year – Henline is trying to open a restaurant in San Antonio to help employ other veterans. In his comedy routines, Henline makes many references to PTSD. He is currently among those who are receiving training for the companion K-9 program.

What’s next

Even though the annual race will no longer take place, organizer Georgia Meeker Sysouchanh urged participants to keep looking out for veterans, and finding other ways to help those who have served.

In a farewell message sent to participants after the 5th and Final Flaughless 5K, Sysouchanh said, “It has been a pleasure for me to plan this event not only to honor Dan’s memory, but to also bring awareness to the silent and invisible wounds so many of our veterans suffer with. In the past five years we have raised over $71,000 in Dan’s memory to help our veterans. Although this was our final Flaughless 5K, please continue to support our service members through organizations such as Retrieving Freedom.”

See photos of the 5th and Final Flaughless 5K HERE.