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A war widow runs with a ring and a pledge

When her husband left for Afghanistan in August, Heather Garay-Yoder, 25, started running to release the stress of his being away and at war.

Heather Garay-Yodor ran Broad Street for her husband, Jarrett, who died last month.
Heather Garay-Yodor ran Broad Street for her husband, Jarrett, who died last month.Read moreColin Kerrigan /

When her husband left for Afghanistan in August, Heather Garay-Yoder, 25, started running to release the stress of his being away and at war.

She had dreamed about running long distances, reading about how amazing people felt during and after races. Running also was something her husband, Chief Warrant Officer and helicopter pilot Jarett Yoder, 26, could do as well.

Heather started running a mile, then a 5K, then five miles. Jarett set goals for her, new times to reach. Running was something they could do together, a world apart.

In February, she signed up for the Broad Street Run, a 10-miler through the heart of Philadelphia, with 40,000 runners. She had always been too intimidated to try. Not anymore.

"I'm doing this race in the spirit of my husband fighting overseas!" she e-mailed on April 2. "We hope to run Broad Street next year together!"

One week later, on April 9, her training stopped. Two soldiers showed up at her door. They didn't have to speak. She knew her husband of 10 months was dead, and so was their beautiful future together. His Apache helicopter had crashed.

Even though she barely ate for two weeks, and hasn't run a step, Heather will run Broad Street on Sunday.

"I have to do it for Jarett," says Heather, who lives in Mohnton, near Reading.

Just like thousands who will run, many in red socks, to honor victims of the Boston bombings and to show support for their country, Heather will honor her husband and his service.

"He'd be so mad if I quit," she said.

There was never any doubt. She'll wear bib number 27921, starting in the yellow corral. Her parents and two sisters will cheer at the finish, undeterred by any fear of terror.

She had a shirt made. On the back it says, "Running For My Hero," along with his name, birth date, and April 9, 2013. On the front is a little Apache helicopter. There wasn't time to add his photo.

Heather will also run with Jarett's wedding ring - recovered from the crash site - on the middle finger of her right hand.

Heather and Jarett had something special, if only for a short time. He loved flying, and always wanted her to find what she loved. Down at flight school in Alabama, the best 18 months of their lives, he would often say to her: "Heather, what's your dream? I finally got my dream, and it's time to get yours."

She majored in criminal justice, finishing at Troy University in Alabama, and her dream is to work with troubled kids, as a juvenile probation officer. She hasn't found that dream job yet, but she did discover running.

When he went off to Afghanistan last August, six weeks after their wedding, she started to run. And she discovered, to her astonishment, that she loved running and how it made her feel.

On the day he died, she had just bought a Garmin GPS watch that morning. Jarett told her to. He was so proud of her training for the Broad Street Run, now sponsored by Independence Blue Cross.

"He was excited for me," she said. "He was going to follow me during the race. It was a good connection for us."

They both grew up in the Reading area, graduating in 2005 from different high schools, and got jobs that summer at Dick's Sporting Goods. She worked as a cashier, then as front-end manager. He was a bike technician.

That fall, only a couple of months after they met, he went off to basic training to Fort Benning, Ga. His older brother, Bryon, had joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and gone to Iraq. His service inspired Jarett to join, Heather said.

After basic training, Jarett returned to Dick's, and the friendship grew. Their first date was to a Super Bowl party in 2008. Love took hold. He was tall, athletic, laid-back, and always happy, just fun to be around.

In the fall of 2008, Jarett went to Iraq, drove a Stryker, an armored vehicle. He would call weekly, but didn't talk about his patrols. "He didn't want me to worry," she said.

What he did talk about, all the time, was applying to flight school when he got back, to become an Apache pilot.

He was accepted into flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., in April 2010. She went with him.

"He was finally realizing his dream," she said. "We learned to live on our own. It was just the two of us against the world."

On Nov. 26, 2011, they spent a beach weekend on the Florida Panhandle. Getting ready to go out, she was upset, having what he called a "Heather moment." Her hair wasn't right.

"You're just missing something," he said, and got down on one knee, ring in hand.

They got married last June, as soon as they returned to Reading from flight school. And he was gone by August.

Lately he'd been saying he wanted to buy a house, get a dog, and start a family. "It's time for us to be grown-ups," he told her.

Exactly what happened - accident, equipment failure, or enemy fire - the Army is investigating, she said. The Apache is a two-man helicopter. Jarett that day was copilot and gunner. The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Ruffner, 34, of Harrisburg, also died.

Even though Jarett had been to Iraq, was in Afghanistan, and America was at war, Heather said it was inconceivable to her that he could be killed - "never, ever, not in a million years."

Heather was in Dover, waiting for Jarett's casket, when she heard about Boston. Her reaction was despair.

"My husband just died fighting against terrorism and it's still going to continue on," she recalled thinking. "I feel like it's never going to go away. You lose faith or something.

"But when I lose that faith," she adds now, "I say, 'Look at all the people who jumped in to help those who got hurt, without hesitation, knowing they could be the next one to get blown up.' I have to look at that part of it. That gives me hope."

The people of Reading have also given her hope and comfort. Hundreds and hundreds attended Jarett's memorial service.

"It was unreal to see the support," she said. "You know, there's people out there who say they support our troops and our country, but you almost don't believe it until I saw something like that. It makes you think and have hope again.

"Jarett deserves it," she said of the community's support, "and it helps me to know how many lives he has touched and people he has helped."

She visits the cemetery daily. On Thursday, she put daisies by his grave. She has started a memorial fund for him.

"We were always happy," she said. "Just in love. I am going to get the house that he dreamed of, and the dog he always wanted. I have to keep living for him."

But first, Broad Street. "He's going to get me through it," she says. "I might be last, but that's OK."

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