When Nicki Bunting said goodbye to her husband at the end of a two-week break from his tour of duty in Afghanistan in January 2009, she didn’t know it was the last time she would ever see him.
On Feb. 24, 2009, Army Capt. Brian “Bubba” Bunting was killed when his Humvee drove over and detonated an improvised explosive device.
The news came only weeks after the Darnestown couple decided to have a second child to join their 18-month-old son, Connor. They had tried to conceive a baby while he was on his military break.
“I was especially devastated for all of our future hopes and dreams and the life we had planned for together,” she said.
Four days after her husband’s death, Bunting discovered that she was pregnant with her second son, Cooper.
“That was just the most incredibly uplifting news I could have possibly gotten at the time,” she said. “It meant that I could still carry on his dreams and part of the life we had planned.”
At age 28, Bunting was a widow with one toddler and a new baby on the way. Even in the midst of her sadness, she was determined to help her husband’s legacy live on.
While pregnant with her second son, Bunting put together a 5K race in memory of her husband called “Bubba’s Belly Run” in 2009. Held at the Bullis School in Potomac, the run had 800 runners its first year and raised more than $50,000.
The run’s location at the school was special for Bunting because it was where she first met her husband in sixth grade.
Proceeds from the run were divided among several military organizations, including the American Widow Project, A Soldier’s Child Birthday Foundation, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Friends Never Forget and Fisher House in Bethesda.
“So many organizations reached out to me and provided support and guidance,” she said. “I wanted to be able to give back to them and help their cause for other families like they did for ours.”
Bunting went on to hold the race for the next two years, ultimately raising more than $150,000. She stopped in 2012 to spend more time with her young boys.
With “Bubba’s Belly Run” behind her, Bunting still works to help families of fallen troops. She put some of the proceeds from the runs into a bank account and offers financial help to families that are in immediate need. During the holidays, she also sends gift cards to families.
In honor of her hard work, Bunting will be presented with the Senator Ted Stevens Leadership Award at the TAPS Honor Guard Gala on March 27 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The award is presented annually to a surviving family member who lost a loved one serving in the military.
The award is named after the late Ted Stevens, a Republican U.S. senator from Alaska, for his legacy of caring for the families of fallen military service members and his contributions to founding TAPS in 1994.
“Even after she decided to stop organizing the race annually, Nicki has chosen to stay involved in helping support other surviving families grieving a loss,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a public affairs officer for TAPS. “She has raised financial resources to help other families and has also been a helpful companion and friend to other young widows raising children on their own.”
For now, Bunting is focused on raising her two sons, now ages 6 and 4. She said she worries about her sons and how they will grow up without a father, but she keeps her husband’s memory alive through pictures, songs and stories.
“One day, my long-term goal is to really be able to start the run again,” she said. “I also want to help spread the word about the reality military families face.”