Running to Remember in DuPont

When sprinting turns spiritual
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Photos by Shawn Kinney

Located just south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, DuPont’s Powderworks Park plays host to a ritual unlike any other. At 9am every Saturday, a swarm of people in blue gather to form a circle and call out names of fallen soldiers, most of whom they’ve never met. Next, they call out names of soldiers for whom they are about to run — their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, neighbors and even strangers. Then they say a prayer.

The organization, Wear Blue: Run to Remember, was founded in 2009 by Lisa Hallett, Erin O’Connor and Shella Hightower, all of whom, after having lost someone in war, sought to do something to help ground themselves and form a community for others.

Hallett, a mother of three, lost her husband in late 2009. Her loss made her realize “the community on the homefront was looking for a way to connect and to heal and to honor, so we began running on Saturday mornings.”

“I think it was the first chance that we were able to connect with our grief, but it also helped us support one another. As we were running, I think we were able to find a place where we could stand on our own, but not alone.”

Each Saturday, members of Wear Blue gather to run 3, 7 or 13-plus miles. Usually about 125 people show up. During the summer months, those numbers grow even larger, said co-president Curtis Brake of DuPont.

Wear Blue’s mission “is to build a running community that honors the service and sacrifice of the American military.” In addition to the JBLM chapter, there is one in Fort Bragg, N.C., and a third chapter at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama is being organized. Each chapter follows the mantra: “We run for the Fallen, for the Fighting, and for the Families,” and acts as a support network for those preparing to deploy, those who have come back, those recovering and those who are otherwise affected by loss due to war. It’s also a way for the community to support all soldiers.

2Brake joined Wear Blue in early 2011. He heard about the organization through word of mouth and got involved because he is a “proud military brat of a career-long officer,” he says. “I’m a very proud son of (his dad’s) service to our country and our freedom.”

Others, like Yesenia Byrne, run to remember those with whom they fought. Byrne, an Army captain, fought alongside Hallett’s husband in the Fifth Brigade. She runs for her unit.

Denny Bernardy runs to remember his friends and his family. “I’m a veteran, I have an uncle who’s missing in action in Korea, and I watched what my father and mother and grandmother went through and (I) was drawn to this.”

As members return week after week, they are healing and helping one another and honoring the ones lost at the same time. “These people are hurting and you can watch how they do something good out of something so tragic, you know, and they really hold this community together,” Bernardy says.

Wear Blue brings the community together. Members of the local DuPont retirement community, Patriot’s Landing, even come out to show their support on Saturday mornings. “We have a connection with service personnel and especially with Wear Blue, since surviving spouses started the group. It’s a very special day for us to come over here and cheer them on and visit with them,” says Paul Knoop, who moved to Patriot’s Landing in 2010 and retired from the military in 1988, after 29 years of service. “It’s just a great bunch of folks.”

You don’t have to be a skilled runner to join. Teresa Maggart joined a year ago having never run before. “I never ran, ever, and it was super scary but people from the group came out and talked to me, saying ‘This is what we do’ and I just slowly started and they just took me in, the non-runner.” Maggart was inspired to join the group after losing her husband a couple years ago. “It was my way to honor him,” she said.

Many members say running on these Saturdays, rain or shine, is a sort of spiritual experience. Bernardy runs to find peace and praise and honor those who have fallen. Rita White runs for others, saying “There is always somebody hurting worse than you,” a sentiment also shared by Jessica Alley.

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“I’m not a runner by nature, I didn’t start until I was 30, so it doesn’t come naturally for me, so it’s hard,” Alley says. Every step is deliberate, difficult and I just have to remind myself that there are so many people that can’t do this, and that each step counts because they don’t have that anymore.”

Others say they feel the fallen soldiers watching over them. Andi Dournelis, who runs to honor a Ranger in her husband’s regiment, said, “I never met (Thomas Duncan) in person, but I feel like he watches me and he knows what I’m doing. There are times where on the run it may be really difficult and it’s weird. I kind of feel like when I think about him he can see what I’m doing. He’s glad that there’s somebody here remembering him.”

People grieve, remember and pay tribute in many ways. So why did this group choose running?

“It’s real. And it forces you to be real. And you have to make the choice: you can say ‘I’m going to push harder and farther and achieve something, or you can choose to stop,’” Hallett says. “And I think that men and women who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, don’t have that choice. But we do. And we can make that choice to push a little harder, a little farther and not stop.

“And persevere. And I think what we do in the run can transfer into our lives.”

For more information: Wear Blue Run to Remember

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