Story by Capt. Chelsea Durante and Sgt. Gabrielle Weaver
FORT CARSON, Colo. — When Lt. Col. Timothy Palmer, commander, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, announced a run challenge to his Soldiers, the last thing he expected was for the mother of a 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Reg., Soldier who died in combat to reach out and ask to participate.
The mother’s message started a series of events that would not only inspire an entire battalion but reach across an ocean to form new friendships.
The run challenge
As March 2020 came to an end and the threat of COVID-19 spread across the nation, closing gyms and public workout spaces, Army leaders were challenged to adapt unit training and readiness to meet social distancing guidelines. It was soon after that, that Palmer introduced the “112 for 1-12 Challenge.”
The event challenged past and present unit Soldiers and their Families to run 112 miles between April and May while sharing their photos and progress on social media to honor the unit’s heritage, legacy and history of excellence. This effort, among many others, sought to engage, motivate and unite Soldiers through digital means, despite the isolated nature of social distancing, according to Palmer.
“I think the Soldiers are excited to get out and challenge themselves; I know I am,” said 1st Lt. Tanner Ellison, executive officer of Delta Company, 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Reg., 2nd IBCT. “It’s going to be hard work, but finishing the challenge will make us all feel like we’re accomplishing something together even though we’re all apart.”
A Gold Star Mother’s message
On April 1, 2020, a few hours after the 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Reg., Facebook page posted the details of the “112 for 1-12 Challenge” the unit received an unexpected message.
The message read: “Gold Star Mom (Pfc. Keith M. Williams) wants to run for her son KIA (Killed in Action) OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) … Can we participate?”
Without hesitation, an administrator for the page responded, “The ‘Red Warrior’ Battalion feels honored to have your support.”
The message, according to the administrator, received a lot of support and excitement from Soldiers, Family members and veterans. One message started with, “Kia Ora from New Zealand.”
As the battalion leadership would soon learn, Kia Ora is the Mãori greeting meaning “Be well/healthy,” which translates to an informal “hi” or “hello.” The message came from Heather Dunbar on behalf of her husband, Capt. Barrie Dunbar, an officer in the New Zealand army, asking if he could also participate in the “112 for 1-12 Challenge” in honor of his nephew, Pfc. Keith M. Williams.
Leadership across the brigade was in awe of the support for Williams.
Memories of Pfc. Keith M. Williams
Pfc. Keith M. Williams was only 6 years old when 9/11 occurred. According to his mother, in the years following, a strong sense of patriotism and a Family tradition of service drew him to the military. His father served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, his grandfather served 25 years in the Royal New Zealand army, and many other relatives served in the Royal New Zealand army and multiple branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
His first duty assignment as an infantryman brought him to Delta (Dog) Company, 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Reg., 2nd IBCT, where he deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in March 2014.
On July 24, 2014, while on a convoy mission near Mirugol Kalay, Afghanistan, Williams was critically wounded by an improvised explosive device, and Staff Sgt. Benjamin Prange, a heavy weapons section leader, seated next to him was killed. Later at the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, Keith passed away from his injuries.
“Keith hated running!” recalled his mother, Debbie Williams. “I think he got that from me, along with bad knees from his dad.”
While the U.S. Army emphasizes many facets of training, it is no secret that it loves to run, and running requires minimal planning, no equipment and can be accomplished in any environment.
Debbie remembers Keith writing to her from basic training saying he may not graduate because he could not pass the two-mile run requirement. Keith and a friend pushed each other to do better, and were the last two in the unit to complete the run to qualify.
They were “at the top of the world,” and their unit was celebrating like they had won the World Series, Debbie recalled.
A tribute to a fallen comrade
On April 6, five days after Debbie contacted the unit and requested to run, she sent another message. She explained that she was exposed to COVID-19 while treating a cancer patient at the hospital where she works, and was beginning to exhibit symptoms consistent with the virus. She would not be able to run.
Her request: Would someone be willing to run on her behalf in memory of her son?
Without hesitation, Ellison accepted the challenge on Debbie’s behalf.
“I was already planning on participating in the challenge, but when I heard about Ms. Williams’ request I was thrilled since it was actually giving the challenge meaning,” Ellison said. “Finally finishing the 112 miles was a great feeling; I had gotten a shirt made in memory of Pfc. Williams, so I felt like I had a buddy there with me.”
On May 1, Ellison, along with 99 Soldiers, Family members and others, completed the “112 for 1-12 Challenge.”