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AF widow's run of remembrance halted by tragedy at Boston Marathon

Apr. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Linda Ambard, in this Aug. 1, 2011, photo, was running in memory of her husband, Maj. Phil Ambard, during the Boston Marathon. The bombs cut short her finish by just a few yards.
Linda Ambard, in this Aug. 1, 2011, photo, was running in memory of her husband, Maj. Phil Ambard, during the Boston Marathon. The bombs cut short her finish by just a few yards. (Courtesy of Linda Ambard)
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When an Afghan turncoat killed Maj. Phil Ambard and eight other Americans in April 2011, his widow slogged through the grief in her running shoes.

Linda Ambard found it easier to summon her faith when she ran. She resolved to run marathons in every U.S. state to honor her husband’s memory. Ambard died while serving as an adviser to the Afghan air force during a voluntary deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.

She planned to mark the second anniversary of Ambard’s death by participating in this year’s Boston Marathon.

“You don’t get over the loss of someone, but you learn to live without them and make meaning in your life,” Linda Ambard said.

Around 2:45 p.m. on April 15, she felt a surge of joy. She could see the finish line.

“I was the cheerful girl zipping through the marathon with a swish of her red polka-dot skirt and a huge smile on her face,” Linda Ambard wrote on her Facebook page that night.

When a boom sounded, the school principal running next to her wondered aloud if someone was firing cannons to mark the end of the race. A puff of smoke rose up. They ran on.

“All of a sudden, we hear all these screams, see all these people sprinting away from the finish line,” Linda Ambard said. She had joined their retreat when she heard the second boom. Authorities began stopping people, and she couldn’t go any further.

She took refuge in a Dunkin’ Donuts, where she slid to the floor and sobbed. She didn’t know if she was safe. And she couldn’t forget the expression on the faces of the fleeing: “It was sheer terror.”

One week after a pair of bombings killed three and injured at least 180, Linda Ambard shakily recalled how the explosions brought her back to the beginning of the grief she’d worked so hard to overcome — at least temporarily.

“A terrorist tried to take something else from me,” she said.

Phil and Linda Ambard met when he was a 21-year-old airman basic at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and she was a 27-year-old single mom of three. He asked her out 20 times before she said yes. They eloped four months later and had two children together. Phil Ambard rose through the enlisted ranks and, in 2000, became an officer. He was a professor of foreign languages at the Air Force Academy when he volunteered for a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. He felt it was his duty.

Phil Ambard knew the Afghan colonel who shot him and eight other Americans before killing himself on April 27, 2011.

“That was the hardest thing about my husband’s death: He was killed by someone he knew and trusted. It took my trust, and it took my faith,” Linda Ambard said.

Phil Ambard was a very good judge of people. But he’d misjudged his killer.

“If he could be that wrong about his assassin ... I started doubting myself and my own perceptions,” she said.

But as the second anniversary of his death approached, “I was finally starting to get past that,” Linda Ambard said. “I was discovering who I was without Phil.”

She’d relocated to Massachusetts, where she works as a youth programs director at Hanscom Air Force Base. She’d published a book, “Courageously Alive: A Walk Through Military Loss,” about her journey through grief.

She ticked off marathons in 43 of the 50 states. The Boston race wasn’t on the list; she wasn’t fast enough to qualify. But a marathon official who’d heard Linda Ambard’s story invited her.

She didn’t finish the race. She huddled in the doughnut shop for two hours, comforted by a nurse. Because the phone lines were jammed, her five children — four of whom are in the military — feared the worst.

Eventually, an Army friend was able to reach Linda Ambard on her cellphone. He put on his uniform, came to get her and escorted her back to her hotel room.

In the days since, Linda Ambard has thought a lot about the people whose lives were changed forever in a matter of minutes, just as hers was in 2011.

“On a beautiful Boston afternoon, so much was taken from so many innocent people who were just out trying to enjoy the day,” she said. “You know there is an inherent risk to putting on a military uniform. Phil knew that. You don’t feel like running the Boston Marathon is an inherent risk. It took some more innocence from us.”

She planned to spend the days leading up to April 27 celebrating life in small ways, such as trying out her new road bike. And she is looking to next year’s Boston Marathon.

“I hope they invite me back. I hope that they’ll have me back,” she said. “It comes down to this: If I don’t, the terrorists have taken two things. They took my husband, and they will have taken the one thing I was doing to honor his memory this month.”

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