Marine Corps Marathon will be 177th race for widow of airman killed in Afghanistan
By KARIN ZEITVOGEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 25, 2019
Linda Leonard Ambard will line up Sunday to run her ninth Marine Corps Marathon through Virginia and Washington — her 177th marathon in less than seven years — in tribute to the husband she lost in Afghanistan.
Ambard has been on a quest since 2013 to run marathons in all 50 states and, once that was under her belt, on all seven continents.
She committed to what some would call a crazy endeavor when she ran the Boston Marathon to honor Air Force Maj. Phil Ambard, who was killed in an insider shooting at Kabul airport two years earlier.
Ambard was nearly at the finish line in Boston when the first of two pressure-cooker bombs went off feet away from her. She was not injured, but she saw and smelled death at close quarters, she said in a phone interview earlier this month.
But while her husband’s death destroyed her trust in Afghan allies — she said none of them tried to stop the shooter who killed nine Americans that day — and made her question why American troops were in Afghanistan, her main thought in Boston was that she couldn’t let terrorism take any more away from her, she said.
“I began to fight to take back my world. By running a marathon on all seven continents, I’m taking back every corner of the world and facing down my fears, one step at a time, one mile a time,” she said from her home at Kadena Air Base in Japan, where she works as a community resources coordinator in resiliency programs.
There’s never been a marathon she hasn’t wanted to quit, Ambard, 58, said, “but I keep taking those steps and pushing through because I can’t let Phil’s killer have me, too. I won’t let terrorists break my spirit.”
Running helped Ambard shed her fear of different cultures and come out of the protective shell that closed around her after her husband’s death. She also uses it to help others cope with tragedy.
Many in the military can relate to her story, she said. “They think, ‘If she can come back from that, then how can I get up off the ground when my hits start coming and keep coming?’”
Ambard understands the complexities of military loss.
“I didn’t just lose Phil; I lost my culture, my place in my community,” she said.
After her husband’s murder, she felt isolated, even in the bustling Colorado military community where she lived. She “ran away from Colorado Springs and went to Ansbach, Germany, to teach because I couldn’t deal with so many people watching me in my most broken state,” she said.
An Air Force officer for 10 years and an enlisted airman for 15 before that, Phil Ambard had just finished his doctorate when he volunteered to go to Afghanistan for a year.
At Kabul airport on April 27, 2011, days after his 44th birthday, he was “shot too many times to count” by an Afghan service member he knew and trusted, his wife said. His service weapon has never been recovered, she said.
His murder eroded her trust in the U.S. military.
“I’ve heard so many versions of what happened to Phil from the military, I still don’t know,” she said. “I was treated like an ignorant spouse and it wasn’t OK to ask questions. Nothing added up. It still doesn’t.”
But nearly a decade after her husband’s life was cut short, Ambard is beginning to take hers back, thanks in part to running, she said.
She travels the world to run marathons and visit her kids — four of five are service members — and grandkids.
Her last marathon will be in Antarctica in 2021, the year she turns 60, she said.
The Marine Corps Marathon is one of the toughest for her — physically hard and emotionally draining. Every time she runs it, she pauses at the halfway mark by the photo of her husband at the ‘blue mile,’ a stretch along the Potomac River where fallen service members are commemorated.
She said she usually cries as she remembers the last time she saw him.
The cab that had picked him up on that January day in 2011 drove up the street and suddenly stopped, Ambard recalled.
“Phil came sprinting back. I thought he had forgotten something, but it was to kiss me one more time and tell me that a year wasn’t a long time,” she said.
Asked whether she believes that 18 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has been worth it, Ambard again turned to the memory of her husband, who grew up in Venezuela and became a U.S. citizen and service member at 18.
“He often said to me that Americans lose sight of the freedoms and opportunities given to them by their citizenship,” she said. ”He thought that by educating people in countries where they have nothing, who are oppressed and who face so many unthinkable actions, you could change a culture and lives,”
She still believes that, she said, “but I don’t know if the cost is worth it.”
Linda Leonard Ambard crosses the finish line at a race in Kansas City in 2018. Ambard has run a marathon in all 50 states since her husband, Air Force Maj. Phil Ambard, was killed in an insider shooting in Afghanistan in 2011 and is on a quest to run the classic distance on every continent.
COURTESY LINDA LEONARD AMBARD