By Gary Sheftick, Army News ServiceNovember 27, 2018
FORT MEADE, Md. -- Completing the frigid 4-mile "Galloping Gobbler" race Saturday morning in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a 50-pound rucksack was more than about staying in shape for Sgt. 1st Class John Garrett.
He sees such events as an opportunity to spread awareness about issues facing military veterans.
On the back of his rucksack was a sign that read: "According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. If you, or a veteran you know is in crisis, call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1."
More than 30 people approached him during the event to talk about his sign.
This was Garrett's 24th race wearing his uniform and rucksack. Event distances have ranged from 5 kilometers to the 50K ultra marathon that he plans to complete again, Dec. 29.
He began the running events three years ago. He has a condition in his legs called Compartment Syndrome, where his leg muscles do not expand to allow ample blood flow during exercise and his nerves get numb after several minutes of running. He tried surgery, but the condition returned.
To stay in shape, he runs for a few minutes until the nerves begin to numb, then walks until the condition subsides. He also wears a 50-pound ruck to help his endurance.
When he began entering road races wearing his rucksack and uniform, people immediately approached him to thank him for his service.
"I didn't want it to be about me," he said. "After about five or six races, I started connecting the dots about people coming up and talking to me, and recognizing that as an opportunity."
He began making handouts about local resources available to veterans and gave the fliers to people who approached him during the events.
"I just developed a little message to say, 'Hey, these are some of the issues facing us,'" he said.
He believes in the Army value of selfless service. He does not want the attention he gets during races to focus on him, but instead on the issues of fellow veterans.
"I want it to be more about veterans who are facing … [post-traumatic stress disorder], isolation and depression and those things that contribute to the suicide rate," he said.
Garrett had two friends who served and later committed suicide. He knows unit members who deal with PTSD. He was able to work through some issues of post-traumatic stress himself after a deployment to Iraq in 2006-2007 with 1st Battalion, 110th Infantry Regiment.
"You kind of get numbed to things," Garrett said of his deployment. "We were in contact so much and whether it was an [improvised explosive device], a firefight, indirect or [vehicle-borne IED], it was something almost every single day."
Now he is a full-time senior supply sergeant in the S4 section of the Indiana National Guard's "Night Fighters" of 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry Regiment at Fort Wayne.
"I'm very fortunate with this battalion," he said. "They give me a lot of support and a lot of leeway to do these races."
He runs the Fort4Fitness Fall Festival 10K or marathon every year in Fort Wayne and takes part in many shorter 5K events around the area. Before and after the races and when he stops to walk, he discusses PTSD and ways to help veterans.
(Follow Gary Sheftick on Twitter: @sheftickARNEWS)