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Fallen airmen honored in 500-mile run, beginning in Gwinnett

At the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial Monday, runners embark on a more than 500 mile relay-style run from Lawrenceville to Tampa, Fla. as part of Operation One Voice, with a mission to honor special forces personnel killed in action. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

At the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial Monday, runners embark on a more than 500 mile relay-style run from Lawrenceville to Tampa, Fla. as part of Operation One Voice, with a mission to honor special forces personnel killed in action. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

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Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash receives a commemorative pin from Operation One Voice’s Bill Stephens, as members of local public safety agencies begin a more than 500-mile trek in honor of fallen special forces airmen. (Staff Photo: Camie Young)

LAWRENCEVILLE — The hills are the hardest part, said Bill Stephens, before signaling off a group of public safety’s finest on a run of more than 550 miles.

“We are running to honor the fallen,” Stephens said, handing out coins in commemoration of the ninth run to Tampa for Operation One Voice, a charity to help the families of military special operations teams.

This year, the group of more than two dozen runners from the local sheriff’s department, police force, state patrol and fire department are honoring three of the men killed in an Aug. 6, 2011, when a military helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in what was considered the worst loss of U.S. military life in the Afghanistan campaign.

Taking turns in a relay-style event, the runners aren’t taking this journey to raise money but to raise awareness.

At the end of the journey, the runners will be joined from by Florida public safety personnel as well as the widow of one of the men honored, Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Brown, who was killed along with fellow airmen Tech. Sgt. Daniel Zerbe and Staff Sgt. Andrew Harvell during the crash. Last year, Operation One Voice dedicated its race to the 15 Navy Seals who died in the same accident, which claimed a total of 38 lives.

In its years in operation, Operation One Voice has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the families of the specialized trained military personnel injured or killed in action, helping not only with medical bills but with plane tickets and hotel rooms or other expenses that face them in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Baseball Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro and former Atlanta Falcons John Burroughs and Morton Anderson, who help the group’s fundraising efforts, attended Monday’s ceremony at the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial to see the runners off.

“They don’t know the injured, but they know the cause,” Gwinnett Fire Lt. Tom Branch, who helps with the charity, said. “We’re the little stop gap between the government (benefits) and the reality. .. It’s about the team. That’s why public safety has come together.”

Niekro said he is willing to come every time he can to support the Special Operations families.

“These people, they take care of me and my family and every American,” he said. “They take the bullet.”

The cause is an easy to help raise funds for, Anderson added. “I’ve never got one no,” he said.

Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash told the runners she would pray for a safe journey, as she sent a memento for the military leaders who would meet the group in Tampa.

“I thank you for all y’all do to honor folks that have so often been forgotten,” Nash said. “We do so appreciate the time and effort.”