WHARTON COUNTY, Texas (Tribune News Service) — They ran through Lissie in the chilly morning, then turned right at the highway toward the rising sun.
By day's end, Team Red, White, and Blue's runners would carry the stars and stripes - a standard, 3-by-5 American flag on a 4-foot pole - 29 miles closer to their ultimate goal in Tampa, Fla.
It was just past 7:45 a.m. and Team RWB's runners had to contend with hours of running while carrying the unwieldy flag along a barren, rural stretch of U.S. 90 about 60 miles southwest of Houston.
"If I get squished, at least I've got good insurance - that's what my wife would say," Shawn Barker joked during his 2-mile segment carrying the flag, as a tractor-trailer whipped past.
Years ago, before seven deployments to the Middle East, the 42-year-old U.S. Navy vet's drill instructors had ordered him to carry his unit's flag during boot camp. Every time he stepped out of formation, they made him do push-ups.
"I didn't get good at marching, but I did get strong," Barker said, with a wry grin.
Three and a half years after retiring from the Navy, he was back on the road Friday, carrying another flag, one cog in a massive operation by Team RWB to carry an American flag through the heart of the country as part of the Old Glory Relay.
Beginning in Redmond, Wa. and over the last 41 days, members of Team RWB - which works to use physical activity to help connect veterans with their communities after finishing their military service - have moved the flag 3,139 miles of the relay's 4,216 miles, which ends at Team RWB's headquarters in Tampa.
'All about connection'
Runners reached the outskirts of Houston on Thursday and will spend three days moving the flag across the region.
On Friday morning, more than a dozen runners came from across the region, from Acres Homes and Dayton, Humble, Spring and Pasadena. They included civilians, veterans, and at least one active Army National guardsman.
"It's all about connection and connecting this flag with as many people as possible," said Ryan McKennedy, as two runners unfurled the flag shortly before the run began.
McKennedy, a member of Team RWB's Las Vegas chapter, had traveled to Houston to shadow the flag and runners in the organization's support van.
Over the course of the morning, Team RWB members jogged past fallow cotton and wheat fields.
Runners guarded Old Glory as it tugged in the draft of vehicles whipping past, dodging blown-out tires, running through the occasional stench of recent roadkill and making sure they didn't drop the flag or step on it.
The relay comes as some Americans have used the nation's most revered symbols to protest of racial inequality and police brutality, most notably professional athletes kneeling at sporting contests during the playing of the national anthem.
Runners and other supporters of Team RWB expressed an unabashed reverence for the flag and said the relay was a way to honor veterans, help build camaraderie and connect with people they might not otherwise meet.
"This really shows, in a very symbolic way, what citizenship means in our nation," Team RWB founder Mike Erwin said in a phone interview earlier this week. "All these people of different backgrounds coming together with a common goal - as a team, to move this flag all the way across America."
'Service and honor'
Kim Johnson, 52, joined Team RWB in part to honor her father, a Marine who served during the Korean War.
"It's about service," she said. "It helps people feel good about their country even if there's all this other stuff going on."
Such was the case for Brian Richards, a 45-year-old soldier who was driving to Laredo when he spotted the relay, passing through Sanderson, earlier this month.
"I passed some guy with an American flag running through the desert and I thought, 'That's kind of strange,'?" said Richards, recounting the story earlier this week. When Richards passed Team RWB's support van a few miles later, he stopped his truck to ask what was going on.
They told him, then asked him to run an abbreviated leg of the relay with them, he recalled.
"For people still serving, that means a lot," said Richards, who has spent two tours in Afghanistan and has a son in the Marines, another heading off to Navy boot camp, and a daughter who plans to enlist with the Navy in six months.
"A lot of these guys are civilians, have never been in the military," he said. "Just to see people running with the pride that all of us fight with, it meant a lot."
Around 9:40 a.m., the group jogged into East Bernard, on their way to the town's schools, where hundreds of students lined Fitzgerald Street, chanting "USA! USA! USA!" A high school marching band played the national anthem, and then cheerleaders performed the school's fight song.
"Any time we have the chance to teach our students about service and honor, about something greater than ourselves, we'll take that opportunity to do that," said Jay Janczak, the high school's principal.
Eight minutes later, the runners headed up Fitzgerald Street, peeled left on Leveridge Street, and headed back toward the highway. They still had 20 miles to go before they got to Richmond - and rest - later in a long day.