For U.S. Army Capt. Matt Cavanaugh, running started as a way for him to process all he'd witnessed during two tours of combat in the Iraqi desert.

"It kept me functional," he said.

Cavanaugh is still running long distances, ridiculously long distances. But he's no longer doing it just for himself.

The 29-year-old Woodbury man is running 50-mile races and multi-day marathons to raise money for the countless soldiers now home, but not whole, from their wartime experiences.

Rooted in a sobering visit to his old platoon sergeant, Cavanaugh says, his new mission is being accomplished through the support of an improbable friendship with a Woodbury Air Force pilot from another generation.

Seven months ago, Cavanaugh decided to stop in and see the sergeant at his home in Colorado. The man greeted him with a blank glance and then blacked out for a minute. Happens all the time, the sergeant's wife told him, the result of brain trauma suffered in an explosion on an Iraqi road.

"He worked for me on a daily basis for two years, but he didn't recognize me," Cavanaugh said.

As he drove away, Cavanaugh got to thinking. He'd just survived the 110-mile, six-day Trans-Rockies Run, which snakes through Colorado ski towns at altitudes between 8,500 and 12,500 feet. What if he started running for others?

"Running was so important to me and my personal rehabilitation," Cavanaugh said. "What could I do if I started running for a cause and made a sustained fundraising effort?"

During a 50-mile race in Arizona recently, Cavanaugh lined up people willing to sponsor each mile. He has raised more than half his $25,000 goal. The money goes to the Wounded Warrior Project, a Florida group dedicated to assisting soldiers severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm putting myself in a very physically challenging position to try to replicate some solidarity with the guys and women that are facing extreme challenges," he said.

Improbable pen pals

Tom Cocchiarella had just finished a round of golf on a Saturday in 2003 when the 55-year-old computer consultant booted up his laptop.

Waiting for him was an e-mail from Cavanaugh in Iraq. "I remember looking out at my green grass and feeling guilty as I read Matt's e-mail from the desert," said Cocchiarella, who flew Phantom jets during the early '70s. "I was thinking: I'm an old man now, I should take your place. You've got a life to live."

The pair barely knew each other back in Woodbury, but their acquaintance began to grow through letters and e-mails. "We became old-fashioned pen pals," Cocchiarella said.

Cocchiarella's own son, David, is a battalion commander at the University of Minnesota's ROTC program, awaiting his tank commander assignment in May. His son's pending deployment helped cement his improbable friendship with the young officer 7,000 miles away.

A gift subscription to Runner's World from Cocchiarella helped spur Cavanaugh's interest in the sport. Cavanaugh read about races in the magazine and began running on a treadmill. By the end of his second tour, he had time to run outside in the 100-degree heat. He was soon running every day, something he'd never done before.

"It was like a switch flipped and the magazine helped me visualize there was something to look forward to on the other end," Cavanaugh said. "There's a moment in every race, near the end, that's like an epiphany. It's this moment of clarity when you feel you can do anything, and I honestly love that feeling."

One of Cavanaugh's West Point classmates lost her arm in Iraq. Another guy he went to school with lost both legs. He began to think about all those soldiers who'd been robbed of the ability to escape their mental stress by going for a run.

'Bottom of the barrel'

After five years in the Army, Cavanaugh left active duty to try to save his marriage. He'd been gone all but six months in the first three years since he married Emily. But before the couple moved back home from Colorado, they split up, their marriage another casualty of the war.

As Cavanaugh and Emily said their goodbyes March 30, 2007, and he prepared to drive back to Minnesota from Colorado, she said he could take the bottles of vodka and rum that she didn't want.

"It's a bad idea to get divorced and then be by yourself for a night with a bottle of liquor at the ready," Cavanaugh said recently. "I drank a lot that night in the middle of Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere ... I allowed myself one night of pretty strong self-pity."

He spent a year at St. Thomas law school before deciding to reenlist. He has been accepted into a program that will include stints at the Army War College in Pennsylvania this summer, the Pentagon this fall and, eventually, a job teaching military strategy at West Point.

Why go back in?

"My best days and worst days were on deployments, but you never ever feel like you matter more to the world than when you're acting as a deployed soldier in the United States armed forces," he said.

Face and legs, mind and soul

After the Rockies' race and the visit to his old comrade in August, Cavanaugh came home to Woodbury for his 10-year high school reunion in September. He met Cocchiarella for coffee and "went sneak attack'' on him, he said.

Discussing the Wounded Warrior Project, he asked Cocchiarella, "What do you think of raising $25,000 over the next 10 months?"

Cocchiarella shrugged and said: "I'm an IT guy and I don't know how to raise money or arrange events, but I can't say no to you."

Since then, they've talked and e-mailed every day, scheduling fundraising events when Cavanaugh gets time off from his base in southern Arizona. They're more than halfway to their $25,000 goal, and Cavanaugh will run the 110 miles through the Rockies again this summer to put them over the top. It's something, he says, that would be impossible without Cocchiarella's support.

"He's sent thousands of e-mails and made hundreds of phones calls, featuring me,'' Cavanaugh said.

"I am the face and the legs of this thing. But, frankly, Tom is everything else -- the mind and the soul."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767