Odessa resident Adele Verggren tells the story of when her son, Phillip Valadez, was in the military.
Valadez, who joined the army after the September 11 attacks, was in Afghanistan for 18 months and while he was able to return home alive, other soldiers, including those close to him, weren’t as fortunate.
Those included Billy Gomez and Isaac Diaz who both lost their lives in 2004 during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Verggren talks about their stories and was able to share it with members of Carry the Load’s West Coast Relay team on Thursday.
The team made its stop in Odessa, setting up a tent outside its charter bus at the parking lot of Walmart Super Center off Loop 338.
Carry the Load is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide an active way to honor and remember those who have served this country by connecting Americans to the sacrifices made by those in the military, veterans and first responders and their families.
For the last 10 years, Carry the Load’s mission to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day has been a national relay that reaches all 50 states, split up into different sections.
More than 15,500 miles of ground is covered with American flag being handed off every five miles of walking and or cycling.
Members of the West Coast Relay began their journey on April 29 in Seattle, biking or walking to each stop. They will finish in Dallas on May 30. Along the way, they have stopped and set up camps and listened to stories from people who have either served or have had loved ones who have served.
The team members dedicate a walking or cycling leg for those to honor or “carry.”
Verggren’s story was one of many that the West Coast Relay team has heard on its trip.
“I was telling these people that I am so grateful for what they’re doing because Memorial Day is just another mattress sale day and everybody forgets that it’s called Memorial Day for a reason,” Verggren said. “But that fact has been lost on so many people. But I’m very impressed with these people for what they’re doing and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Verggren is able to honor her son and his friends’ by telling their story.
“We have to honor them,” Verggren said. “We were very blessed that (Valadez) made it home but so many of his friends didn’t and we need to remember them and to honor them and never ever forget.”
The relay team started the day in Pecos at the police department before making their way east and stopping at the Monahans Volunteer Fire Department hearing from other people’s time while serving.
“We just heard an interesting story from a gentleman in Monahans who talked about his service in Guam,” West Coast Relay manager Michael Golden said. “We hear all kinds of interesting stories.”
Some of the stories are light-hearted and others are more compelling and heartrending.
“One of the women I met the other day, her brother had served in Vietnam and was about to come home,” Golden said. “He was called to do one last mission and he came back home with both his legs lost. We hear some sad stories. Another woman talked about how her high school lost 12 to 15 young men in Vietnam.”
Not only does the team hear different stories at each stop but also has its flag with the Carry the Load logo where people sign their names or their loved ones to honor.
The relay team stayed at Walmart for a couple of hours before departing to the City of Odessa Fire and Rescue on 1100 W. 2nd street.
“We have a great time,” Golden said. “We meet with the Fire and Rescue folks. They’ve always been as friendly as they can be. We have one of our folks who is an EMT. We feel like we’re at home.”
Team member Ethan Dade is a paramedic from Madison, Wis., and is in his third year of participating in the relay.
“What brings me out here is I really like their mission of supporting veterans and remembering the true meaning of Memorial Day,” Dade said.
After staying the night in Odessa, the team plans on being back on the road Friday, starting at the Legacy Harley-Davidson on 12100 W. Hwy 80 before heading to Midland.
They’ll head to San Angelo on Saturday and will make numerous stops in the state before ending the relay in Dallas.
“We’re going to dip down and head through San Angelo and Brady and then we’re going to pick up so we can capture San Antonio,” Golden said. “We’ll walk through there. Then we’ll go to Houston and walk through Houston for a day. We’ll go to College Station because you can’t go through Texas without doing that. We’ll go through Fort Hood and Waco on the way back to Dallas.”
This year, Golden said the weather for much of the relay has been forgiving.
“We’ve only encountered drizzle once or twice and no hard rain,” Golden said. “The sun has been out. From a cycling perspective, it’s been a tough challenge a few times. The best part has been the people. We meet some of the best people that you can meet from Washington all the way down to San Antonio and New Mexico and here in Texas. People love our veterans. They honor them and our first responders.”
Carry the Load has usually stopped in Odessa in the past.
“It’s great to be out here,” Golden said. “I love West Texas. I love West Texas people. I’ve got a friend out here who I’m hoping to see. The sky is beautiful. The wind is blowing. It’s just like how West Texas always is.”