Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Sid Busch plans to run next Sunday's Disney Marathon with an American flag in his hands and a photo of a fallen airman on his back.
Busch, 67, thinks it's the least he can do for the memory of Air Force Senior Airman Tre Porfirio, who died at age 22, a year after he was critically wounded in Afghanistan. Busch will participate in the 26.2-mile race through Disney parks with Porfirio's picture pinned to his running shirt.
"It's not about me," he said. "The people I'm running for have done all the important stuff."
Busch, who served aboard submarines during a 26-year Navy career, has dedicated 40 road races to fallen American troops in the past nine years, usually wearing a photo of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine killed in action and carrying a 3-foot-by-5-foot flag on a wooden pole as he runs.
He runs in the back of the pack and holds the flag in front, switching hands whenever his wrists ache.
"I'm a slow-enough runner that people can see the picture on my back and actually read the soldier's name," Busch said in a phone interview from his home in South Carolina. "The response from the families, my fellow runners and spectators are humbling and make it worth whatever pain I feel."
He said a World War II veteran pushed himself from a folding chair at the Marine Corps' Historic Half Marathon to stand and salute as he went by.
Busch has competed in 193 marathons and 435 half-marathons since he took up running in 1981 to prove to a doubting Navy doctor that he was still fit for duty aboard submarines. He started dedicating his marathon runs after his cousin and race partner, David Gittelson, was killed Sept. 11, 2001, while working on the 72nd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
They had run six marathons together.
The Walt Disney World Marathon, set for Jan. 12, attracted 27,359 runners last year, the most since the event started in 1994.
Though among his favorite races — "If anyone can make running 26 miles seem like fun, it's Disney," he said — he has never before run the popular marathon carrying the flag or the memory of a fallen soldier. He ran a shorter event last year dressed as Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story."
He is running for a serviceman he never met.
Porfirio, who grew up in St. Marys, Ga., near the Georgia-Florida line, was shot three times near the Pakistani border. He lost sections of his gallbladder, stomach and pancreas and underwent a first-of-its-kind operation that drew national attention. But he died in 2010 from complications of his injuries.
Busch tried to run the U.S. Air Force Marathon for Porfirio in September at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the airman had been stationed, but he had to withdraw after 12 miles because of injury. He failed a second time in October after 13 miles of the Baltimore Marathon.
He has vowed to finish Disney even if he has to crawl across the finish line.
His effort and persistence have won the admiration of the airman's father.
"One of the biggest fears for a parent after they lose a child is everyone forgetting," Karl Porfirio, 54, said. "It means a lot to me for Tre to be remembered, and not only my son but all the veterans he runs for."
Busch gives his race medals to soldiers' families.
Alison Malachowski, mother of Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Malachowski, put it on her son's monument at Arlington National Cemetery.
Her son, 25, was killed March 20, 2011, by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on his fourth tour of duty. He had confided his fear that he would be forgotten. She considers Busch a hero, like her son.
"What a blessing to have someone do this and keep his memory alive," she said.