A little lady with silver and black hair emerged from a vehicle, wearing a button-down jacket and a brave face.
Karl Knutsen can’t recall her name, but he’ll never forget her kind words.
In between heavy sobs on Saturday at “California Run for the Fallen”, the woman thanked Knutsen and his Manteca Unified JROTC cadets, as well as the City of Manteca for their patriotism and continued show of support.
Knutsen approached the woman – a Gold Star mother – offering only a hug.
“The moment shoots right through you,” said the East Union JROTC advisor and the unofficial community coordinator for the Manteca leg of Saturday’s tribute run.
“One of the Gold Star moms stopped me. She said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but you, your kids and this town are the best.’ We’ve done this now for two years and we’ve had an impact on these Gold Star moms,” Knutsen said. “She said, ‘Manteca is the best at remembering our fallen.’ ”
The city was well represented at two sites during Saturday’s portion of a three-day, 150-mile tribute race. “California Run for the Fallen” began in Elk Grove on Friday and made its way through French Camp and Manteca along Airport Way.
The run finished on Sunday in Dixon at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery.
Runners Jeffrey Bill and Dustin Diede were accompanied by a support van as they traveled Manteca’s rural street on foot. The two stopped every mile to honor many of the state’s 740 fallen servicemen and women.
Bill and Diede planted flags and read aloud of the names of the soldiers who lost their lived in combat, turning the hard dirt along the roadside into Hero Markers.
Knutsen set up a cheer party at Hero Marker 57, where the families of Charles Palmer and James Layton collected.
A “Battle Cross” was built behind four flags – each representing a different soldier – and family members posed for pictures.
“It was a very emotional moment,” he said.
Palmer was a Manteca High alum who served as a corporal in the Marines. The 36-year-old was killed on May 5, 2007 in Iraq, leaving behind a wife and three children.
Layton lived in Riverbank and prepped at Vista High in Escalon. The Naval petty officer was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009 at the tender age of 22.
Palmer’s parents, Chuck and Terri, were in attendance Saturday after missing this event last year.
Knutsen arranged to have a four-person color guard and trumpeter at Hero Marker 57 to play Taps.
“We wanted to do something special for the Palmer family,” Knutsen said, “more so because they’re from Manteca.”
Manteca Police controlled the intersection at Airport Way and Louise Avenue, and Manteca Fire was represented at both sites.
More than 60 cadets from East Union, Manteca and Weston Ranch high schools created cheering sections for the runners.
“I’ve done my job. My job is to not let tradition go to the wayside. Tradition, of course, are these fallen,” Knutsen said. “If you look back in the history books at World War I, there are no more veterans. They’re gone.
“These kids need to know why they get to come to school. Why they get the liberty of having lunch with their friends and not have bulletin whizzing overhead. If it wasn’t for these men and women that gave up their lives … that’s the ultimate sacrifice.”