The moment Amy Cotta signed her son over to the Marines in 2011, she was overwhelmed by the worries of so many unknowns.
As a mother, her first concern was her son’s safety. She had no idea if the boy she sent to the military would return home at all.
“We were still losing a ton of people at that time,” Cotta said. “And it’s any parent’s worst nightmare, not knowing if you’re sending your child off to war. I dealt with a lot of emotions during that time, and I needed a way to deal with them.”
She told herself she could make one of two choices. “I could either let that pull me down, or I could do something about it,” she said.
Her answer was a pair of combat boots, and an endurance run.
“I started running races in combat boots,” Cotta said. “I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t a runner. Everything from 5Ks to 50Ks and that was what I was doing for my own healing.”
The boots were symbolic.
“They were heavy, steel-toe, not-broken-in boots,” she said. “But for me there was comfort in that place of discomfort, and I would remind myself that, ‘Hey, you’re alive and you’re able, and you have the privilege to go out there and to do these events and bring about awareness by wearing the same boots that somebody else is wearing right now that’s tens of thousands of miles away from their families.’ ”
The more she ran, the more she realized it was also an opportunity to help others heal. The Greater Nashville, Tenn., native ran Ironman events, honoring 21 families who lost loved ones in the act of service by attaching their pictures to a military pack. When she finished the race, she gave her medal to one of the families. Then the light bulb went off. She could reach out to see if others would be willing to offer their medals to families as well.
“Within two hours, I had all 21,” she said. “And everything kind of snowballed from there. People were asking, ‘How do I honor somebody?’ Families were coming to me asking, ‘How do I get my loved one honored?’ ”
From there, Medals of Honor blossomed into a nonprofit, recognizing all loss of life in conjunction with service through special events, sporting events, endurance races. She was able to spread the message Sunday at Boston College, where the Eagles honored servicemen before their 74-69 win over St. Francis Brooklyn by wearing special shooting jerseys during warmups. The jerseys were adorned with the names of fallen soldiers.
“So what started off simply as giving the family your personal finisher’s medal has grown into this national campaign where we’re working with incredible organizations and colleges and universities like Boston College to make sure that those men and women who have died in the line of duty are never forgotten,” Cotta said.
Cotta had a connection with BC through her husband, Jim, who went to college with Eagles assistant Bill Wuczynski at UNLV. Eagles head coach Jim Christian jumped at the opportunity to acknowledge servicemen who lost their lives.
“It’s just an unbelievably powerful organization, and it was really important,” Christian said.
Along with the shooting jerseys, each player was given a brief biography of the person they were honoring.
“It meant a lot to us just from the standpoint that a lot of players in the locker room, everybody has somebody that’s in the military or passed in the military,” said Eagles guard Ky Bowman said. “My dad was in the military, and then my coach back home was in the military. So just for us to recognize people who put their life on the line for us to be able to come out here and play this game was big for us to just know that today’s not only for us to play but also the day that their families will forever remember. So we just had to go out there and play for them.”
For Cotta, what started as a means of coping is now an opportunity to leave a lasting impact.
“It gives the families an opportunity to let individuals, let the players know something about their loved ones so that way they’re more than a name and a date of death,” she said. “We give them an opportunity to tell as much or as little about their loved one and about their life.
“In this instance, the player got to know something about that individual. In many cases, they’re the same age as those service members were when they passed. And I think all too often, we’re so busy in our lives that we forget that everything we’re able to do is because somebody else’s boots are laced up and sometimes didn’t make it home to have the freedoms we have.”