Surrounded by thousands of racers, Lt. Col. Frederick Moss stood out at the Army Ten Miler.
“I always get the question, ‘Why is this dummy running with this binder? He must be some staff guy that is all about his work.’ You know?” Moss joked, while discussing the annual race.
Indeed, Moss is a staff officer. He works for senior leaders at the U.S. Army Reserve Command headquarters on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Yet, the binder is not his work.
It’s his duty.
Inside, the pages hold the names of 58,000 American military members who died serving in Vietnam.
He carries the white binder on all the military-oriented races. The Marine Corps Marathon. The Army Marathon. The Navy Nautical. Some of these races won’t allow backpacks for security purposes, such as the Army Ten Miler, so this weekend he hand-carried the book 10 miles through the streets of Washington, D.C.
“It’s an act of remembrance. It’s an act of appreciation for them and what they’ve done,” Moss said.
He recalled printing the names at home years ago. He walked away from his computer thinking the job would be finished when he returned. Instead, the printer was still spitting out papers.
“Wow, wait a minute. Now this can’t be right. It’s still going,” he said. “It went from 100 to 1,000 to 2,000. And that’s just the letter ‘A’ … 2,000 husbands, wives, uncles, brothers, cousins. They paid the ultimate sacrifice. And that’s really when this thing kind of hit me. This is really big. That’s a lot of people here.”
He originally printed the book to remember his father, Terry Leon Williams, after he died in 2012. Williams had survived Vietnam, but he rarely talked about the war.
“He was a Marine’s Marine. He’s a man’s man. I learned a lot from him, and I owe a lot to him,” said Moss.
Williams deployed twice, but in spite of his love for the uniform, the Marine didn’t wear it as he returned home from an unpopular war. He faced a country that offered protest, not praise.
“There’s still Vietnam veterans out there who feel some type of way about how they were received when they came back into this country,” Moss said.
That’s a vast difference from how the nation welcomed Moss in 2006. He had deployed to Iraq as a military police officer. When his airplane full of Soldiers landed in Atlanta, firetrucks greeted them on the runway by spraying the plane with water.
“We got off the plane … and everybody was hugging and kissing us. It was crazy. Holy smoke! It was hundreds, thousands of Soldiers walking through the airport … I thought to myself: my dad and his comrades didn’t get that. It wasn’t America’s finest hour. So, that’s why I chose in my small way to show appreciation, for him and them, for their service to this nation,” Moss said.
The binder is for his father, but also for his uncle, Henry, who returned from Vietnam, yet wasn’t really home.
“He didn’t make it. He came back, but he wasn’t the same. You know, the hidden scars of combat. He ended up committing suicide,” said Moss.
Moss’ father was soft-spoken. He spared few words and rarely squandered those words on comforting his children. During his teenage years, their relationship was horrible, Moss said. A strict father and a rebellious son often at odds, he described.
“If you fell, he wasn’t going to hug you. He was going to tell you, ‘Get up. Dust yourself off. Fight on,’” he said.
He was more interested in teaching his son to defend himself than to show him affection.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m running from him still,” Moss said, laughing.
His running days began in high school when he joined cross country track. Running calls him out of bed in the morning. He wakes up in the darkest hours and slips out of the house unnoticed. His wife, Cherie, jokingly calls it his “mistress” because she wakes up to an empty bed.
But Moss communes with God during those runs. He prays and listens to gospel music. Time and worry vanish. He might look at his watch at any moment and realize 20 miles have gone by. Just don’t let him sit through a meeting afterward, because he might fall asleep, he jokes.
He has run so many military races that he keeps his medallions in a bag. There’s no room to display them in the house.
Yet, after high school, his running stopped for a while. His first military experience took him off the track and tossed him toward the water.
“I joined the Navy, and I gained, like, 260 pounds,” he said, exaggerating the weight, with a laugh. He reached 260 pounds, but that’s not how much he had gained.
As he spoke, he pulls out a framed photo of himself in a white Navy uniform. A rounder version of himself looks into the camera, with a mustache hovering above his lips.
“This was pre-Army. I was like the ice cream man, right here. So I lost my love for running at the time because in the Navy, it’s all about systems and ships. Not a lot of room to maneuver to run on the ship,” he said.
He deployed twice with the Navy, to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Later, Moss joined the Army as a staff sergeant. It was a rude awakening because, suddenly, he was in charge of Soldiers without any prior experience in managing people.
“The Navy’s a little bit different. It’s not about people … it was about systems. I was an engineer in the Navy. A boiler technician. You need steam to make the ship go. To turn the turbines. To get power. To drink water. But you flip it, and you go to the Army, and the Army is all about people,” he said.
Those times in the military made him appreciate his father in ways he never could as a son.
When Moss commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army, his family surrounded him in celebration. He remembers sitting at a large round table with his father and relatives.
“I’ve got something to say,” Williams spoke, stopping the conversation around them.
Moss’ father pointed around the table to those who had served in the military. Four branches were represented there: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
“My son was enlisted Navy,” Williams said. “But my son did something different. I never thought my son would be a commissioned officer.”
A pause. A quiet befell the table as the family waited to see what might happen next. Williams stood and saluted his son. Moss stood and returned the salute. He could sense people holding their breath. The two men dropped their salutes and sat back down.
Then, just before the conversation could resume, or an applause might follow, Williams spoke again.
“Now, you’re a lieutenant. You’re officially a punk. Nobody likes lieutenants!”
The table broke in laugher, cheering, and the family returned to their celebration. But a moment had caught during the exchange. A shifting in balance – a new respect – occurred as the older saluted the younger. His father had changed.
Serving in the Army had helped Moss see that change, because service was about sacrifice and legacy. Not individual fame, but a legacy carried by the collective. He saw the military as a family who passed traditions from generation to generation.
“That legacy just keeps going on and on. A legacy of war fighters. People who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and you don’t ever want that legacy to be lost. So, one of the things I do, is I carry this book. That book, to me, signifies that you never, ever forget what other people have done for this nation to make sure that we continue to be free,” said Moss.
The Army Ten Miler reminds Moss of that legacy and of his love for people. He calls it a family reunion, where year after year he hugs brothers and sisters in arms who return to D.C. for the run. It’s a small nuisance that backpacks aren’t allowed, but it’s also an honor for Moss to carry his father’s generation of veterans in his hands.
“Sometimes the book is a little cumbersome, but it doesn’t bother me. Because it’s 58,000-plus fallen comrades in that book. What I’m doing for this short period of time is nowhere near the price they had to pay for us,” he said.
He reflects on those names through Washington, D.C., as he runs. He envisions their stories. He mourns with their families. He considers the children who never saw their fathers or mothers come home. Yet, he is grateful for one name who is not in his book. Not on the wall. Not on any official memorial except for the etching of his memories.
Terry Leon Williams.