The survivor’s guilt that sits on Micah Herndon’s heart is real.
It pulls at him from every angle, and he feels it every day.
It is the demon that he fights.
He wonders why he is still alive and why the fate of three of his closest friends were set for a different path.
Herndon, a 2006 Southeast High School graduate, was a lead machine-gunner in the United States Marine Corps’ "Lava Dogs" division.
And each one of the tears he has cried can tell its own story.
The memories are far too real for them not to.
While they bring pain, they also symbolize honor, pride and a reason for Herndon to make each day something more than the last.
Simply because he has been given the precious opportunity to be alive.
"For some reason, I am still here," Herndon said.
He is not sure why, but he is running to find the answers.
The same demons that have gripped his emotions so tightly are the same demons that he has found peace running away from in the solitude of marathons.
It offers him an outlet to remember and honor his fallen comrades, which he will do on Monday after Herndon qualified for the Boston Marathon.
Herndon’s tale of survival through a series of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan — and how he copes daily with post traumatic stress disorder — is filled with emotion, hope and miracles.
IN THE ARMS OF AN ANGEL
As Micah Herndon opened his eyes, nothing was in focus.
His ears were filled with a deafening ring that consumed him.
His body was limp and numb.
"I felt like a broken, stretched out Slinky," Herndon said.
His United States Marine Corps vehicle had just been the target of a 50-pound improvised explosive device (IED) as part of the Invasion of Marjah in Afghanistan in 2010.
The blast lifted Herndon from his Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) combat vehicle’s gun turret and violently slammed his head back into the vehicle, knocking him unconscious.
A three-minute absence followed and when Herndon finally opened his eyes, he naturally — and frantically — looked himself over for injuries.
"Do I have my legs? Do I have arms? Where am I bleeding?"
Much of the experience was a blur, but Herndon said he can remember his doctor, "Doc Gibson," hovering over him to check his vitals.
And a song from the doctor’s music device slowly began to push the ringing out of his ears.
The song was soft and it was soothing.
"I honestly do not know why or how, but the song ‘In the Arms of an Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan came on," Herndon said. "I still can’t believe it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was a mixture of crying and laughing at the same time, knowing I had just survived something that was set out to kill me."
It was the third IED that had hit Herndon’s Lava Dogs marine division during his deployment to Afghanistan.
The first was a 400-pound IED that hit the seventh vehicle of his convoy that killed his dear friends Mark Juarez and Matthew Ballard, along with British journalist Rupert Hamer, whom Herndon’s division was protecting.
The second IED hit Herndon’s vehicle directly, but miraculously did not detonate at its intended power because of a blasting cap that malfunctioned and allowed for a severe tragedy to be averted.
"For some reason, even after being hit twice, I am still here," Herndon said. "My family was my strength while I was gone. After things happen, those emotions sit in you and it makes you realize how important family truly is."
IN A BETTER PLACE
Herndon’s return home was far from the script Hollywood often crafts.
While his family lovingly embraced him, Herndon found struggles in returning to normal daily routines.
"I went from being in a war zone one day to trying to live a normal life the next day," he said. "We were going on three or more missions a day, constantly on guard and when I got back home, I was still in that mode. I never will be able to get over it, I don’t think, but I am coping. I am trying to get rid of the demons."
Herndon found solace in running.
It took him to a better place.
The former multi-sport athlete at Southeast, who was named First Team All-PTC in football and basketball his senior season, needed an outlet and running proved to be the perfect channel.
He started by running three miles a day, then began furthering his distance once he realized he was addicted to the adrenaline that raced through him and the love he had in honoring Juarez, Ballard and Hamer.
Eventually, in 2017, Herndon found himself in his first half marathon. He placed 16th at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon. He returned in 2018 and placed 15th in the half marathon out of 608.
In 2019, he trained for his first full marathon (26.2 miles), not knowing what to expect. His results qualified him for Monday’s Boston Marathon.
"I kind of shocked myself, to be honest," said Herndon, who lives in Tallmadge with his wife, Sarah.
But running has never truly been about Herndon.
He admits to getting curious looks as he runs by competitors, as he repeats the names "Juarez, Ballard, Hamer" over and over again.
They are his reminder that he is not running for himself.
"I run in honor of them," Herndon said. "They are not here anymore. I am here, and I am able. I am lucky to still have all my limbs. I can still be active. I find fuel in the simple idea that I can run. Some cannot.
"I feel like if I am not running, then I am doing something wrong with my life," Herndon said. "If I get a heat cramp while running or my feet hurt or I am getting exhausted, I just keep saying their names out loud to myself. They went through much worse, so I run for them and their families."
The love inside Herndon’s heart is real.
It lifts him up from every angle, and he feels it every day.
They are the three angels that carry him through his races: Mark Juarez, Matthew Ballard and Rupert Hamer.