They run to remember the fallen
June 30, 2011
SEATTLE " More than 100 heads bowed as the names of 41 fallen Soldiers were read aloud at the start of the race.
The runners " all members of the “wear blue: run to remember” running group " gathered in Corral 17 amidst a crowd of 26,000 at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Seattle Marathon Saturday to continue a tradition they observe each week before their training runs in DuPont.
Several in the group with direct ties to the Soldiers " all from the now inactivated 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division " struggled to hold back their tears.
“We wish that we weren’t here in the first place,” said Sybil Williamson, who traveled all the way from her home in Broussard, La., to run with the group. “Wish it could all just go away. But (because) that can’t change, this is what we can do.”
Her son, Sgt. Patrick Williamson, was killed in southern Afghanistan alongside six fellow Soldiers from C Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment on Oct. 27, 2009, when their Stryker vehicle was ripped apart by a massive improvised explosive device.
This was the second year in a row “wear blue” participated in the annual event.
Last year, 23 women donned blue “run to remember” shirts with photos of fallen loved ones pinned to their backs. They ran because they were trying to deal with the weight of their grief. They ran to humanize their loss.
Since then, Lisa Hallett, 30, the “wear blue: run to remember” founder and wife of Capt. John Hallett III, another Soldier killed during 5th Brigade’s deployment, has watched the small core of her running group grow into a full-fledged cornerstone of the community surrounding Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Nearly 300 people show up each week for the Saturday runs. The sea of blue at the start of the Seattle race was unmistakable.
“We’re trying to bridge military and the civilian population and spread awareness,” Hallett said.
“We’re making a new movement " blue is the new pink. And so when we are able to reach out to 26,000 runners, that’s a real opportunity to share how real and personal the sacrifice that our Families here in this community have made.”
Perhaps the most memorable sight along the 26.2-mile race route that wound from Tukwila through the Beacon Hill neighborhood into downtown Seattle, was the 44 American flags lining the race’s 7-mile point on the shores of Lake Washington.
Two flags fluttered in honor of Soldiers from the area who perished during the Operation Enduring Freedom campaign, 41 represented the 5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. members, and the last represented all fallen servicemembers.
Either a relative of the fallen or a member of the “wear blue” group bore each flag. All 43 names were embroidered on black streamers attached to the tops of the flags.
Hallett hoped the living monument moved and inspired those passing by.
“Forty-four flags is such a small microcosm of the over 6,000 Soldiers and military members ... killed since 2001. That is an incredible sacrifice and an enormous weight that the military community as a whole is carrying,” she said. “I think it’s very special that we’re able to remember in such a tangible and visual way.”
As runners passed the flag tribute, some saluted while others held back tears.
After the race, one woman posted the following on the Rock ‘N’ Roll Seattle Marathon’s Facebook page: “I had a hard time running with a big lump in my throat and pain in my heart. By far the best part of yesterday’s run. Thank you for being there.”
The Facebook sentiment wasn’t unique, said Amana Miyamae, a publicity director with the Competitor Group " the company that organizes the Rock ‘N’ Roll marathons.
Last year the group asked people what their favorite part of the race was and the vast majority mentioned the flags.
“We hope (‘wear blue’) comes back every single year because they’re such an inspiration to everybody,” Miyamae said.
This year, the group placed 43 posters, each bearing the name and photo of a fallen servicemember, along the route, too. “Wear blue” members also manned a water station just beyond the flag and poster memorial.
Erin O’Connor, the volunteer coordinator and co-founder of the group, said more than 150 people signed up to help staff the stations.
“We are achieving our mission,” O’Connor said about the “wear blue” presence at the event.
“Watching those runners come pouring through, there is no question that we were humanizing the loss of war while showing our pride in the service and sacrifice of the American military,” she said.
Erica Paci, 33, vividly remembers running in last year’s Rock ‘N’ Roll half marathon because it took place just three months after her husband, Sgt. Anthony Paci, was killed in a non-combat related accident while deployed with 1-17 Inf.
For Paci, whose three children were at the time all under the age of 3, training each Saturday for the race with the “wear blue” group helped her cling to sanity.
“It sent me on to the positive path that got me to where I am now,” Paci said. “Instead of falling apart and dying inside, I saw how Lisa was being so positive and strong at six months out from losing her husband and I was like, ‘wow, I can do that, too.’”
Paci has since relocated to northern California, but returned for this year’s race because of a commitment she made to run each year with Hallett and other widows in the original group.
“This can always be my connection to this place and my positive reason for coming back and hugging my friends and remembering Tony and being a part of this community that will be a part of my life forever,” she said.
A MOTHER’S GOAL
Before Patrick Williamson was killed, he told his mother about his desire to run the Seattle marathon.
Sybil Williamson remembers telling him that if he chose to race, she’d come watch him cross the finish line.
“Circumstances changed and he didn’t run,” she said, “but because of Patrick I’ve known about this marathon since 2007. I just never expected that I’d be the one crossing the finish line.”
The 56-year-old mother of three ran her first and only marathon 20 years ago.
So when she heard that “wear blue” members were participating in the run her son told her about, she knew she had to run with them, too.
“I’m one of these people that if I can focus on something positive,” she said, “it’s a whole lot easier. It’s a way of honoring Patrick and a way of keeping me sane.”
In February, she began a training regimen to prepare her for the big event. Before competing on Saturday, her longest training run was 22 miles.
When Sgt. John Diaz, one of Patrick’s best friends and a fellow C Co., 1-17 Inf. battle buddy, heard that Sybil was going to run, he called her and said he’d run, too.
“I just want to be there to support her,” he said before the race.
“I miss Patrick a lot, too. I’m running in remembrance of him and all my other friends who are no longer here.”
Diaz didn’t realize Sybil intended to run the full marathon, so he only registered for the half and the two parted ways nearly halfway through.
“Having John Diaz with me for the first nine miles was just beautiful,” Sybil said after the race.
At the flag memorial, Sybil’s husband, Buddy Williamson, 57, stood holding Patrick’s flag as he waited for his wife to pass.
When she reached him, she rushed over and the two embraced. Then she held Patrick’s flag for a brief moment before continuing on with the race.
“I’m real proud of Sybil,” Buddy said as tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I’d give anything to change the circumstance, but I’m amazed at the outpouring of support and the energy you get from the crowds and what they’re getting from us.
“(It’s) very uplifting, I wish I had the words.”
As Sybil neared the finish line, her strength began to wane. Several “wear blue” members ran to her from the sidelines and jogged alongside her during the last quarter mile.
“At that time I deeply hated running,” she said, “but they met me and told me that I could run on in and that I needed to run to the finish line.”
When Sybil crossed the line, more than five hours after the race began, she was surrounded by a group of relatives and supporters in blue.
“Their presence made me think about why I was there,” she said.
“Again, how could I not run?”
Ingrid Barrentine: Ingrid.firstname.lastname@example.org