PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. (Sept. 8, 2022) — Participants in the “wear blue: run to remember” runs that take place every first Saturday of the month next to the Presidio of Monterey warm up with more than just stretches.
Before each run, participants stand in a circle of remembrance and call out the names of fallen service members dating from 9/11 to the present. Then participants go around a second time and call out the names of service members they personally remember. The idea is to honor the fallen in a way that builds resiliency and strength. In a special run Saturday, Sept. 10, the group will call out the names of those who died at the Pentagon on 9/11.
Liz DeLise, organizer of the local runs and director of the nonprofit’s Saturday runs worldwide, said that while everyone follows the same general out-and-back route, participants can choose their own distances, no one keeps time, and children, dogs and strollers are welcome.
“This is not a race,” DeLise said. “This is not a 5K. We aren’t out there to be all ‘hooah,’ ‘oorah.’ We are out there to remember and honor our fallen and to also serve as a healthy coping mechanism for our service members and their families.”
The free runs are open to the entire military and civilian community, and they have caught on in Monterey. The first run in July 2021 had 11 participants, DeLise said, and the organization’s most recent run Sept. 3 included nearly 70.
The runs begin at the Lower Presidio, a park adjacent to the Presidio of Monterey, and proceed to the nearby Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail. DeLise tells runners that it’s 5 kilometers to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and back, and 5 miles to Lovers Point in Pacific Grove and back, but the distances are only for general information; no one keeps track. One of the reasons the runs are off post is to help build a sense of community between the military and civilian populations.
DeLise, a military spouse, organizes the runs with Chaplain (Maj.) Paul Roman, a world religions instructor at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio. Roman also works with U.S. Army Garrison Presidio of Monterey chaplains, and that involvement allows him to work with wear blue. They have both been running with the organization for about eight years, and it has benefitted their lives.
“Wear blue has helped me so much over the years during deployments, during hardships,” DeLise said. “I just want to make sure that these service members know that wear blue is here for them. We’re bridging that gap between the military and civilian community to know that people care.”
Roman said he began running with the organization after several service members died during his second deployment. He had just completed two back-to-back deployments with only a few months in between.
“I saw a lot,” Roman said. “I had to work through it, and we offered a lot of help to our younger Soldiers and stuff, but really, for a lot of professionals that go to the field and come out, we find it hard sometimes. I went to this group, and it was nothing but accepting. It was wonderful.”
Roman said he received an injury in Afghanistan during his first deployment, and his second deployment made it worse, so he would just trot during his first runs with the organization.
“There were guys who just came and stood next to me and walked with me,” Roman said. “You have some great conversations, and you process all of that stuff, so I started attending. I loved it.”
A chaplain’s job is to “nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” and Roman said the runs have helped him do all three.
The experiences of DeLise and Roman fall in line with the organization’s intent. Lisa Hallett and Erin O’Connor founded the organization in 2010 after the redeployment of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat, 2nd Infantry Division, which had sustained many losses in Afghanistan, according to the organization’s website. Hallett, O’Connor, other spouses, and battalion personnel ran together for support during the deployment, and wear blue grew out of that group.
Hallett’s husband, Capt. John Hallett, died during the deployment, and the organization’s logo includes 41 stars for the service members who died alongside him during the deployment. Headquartered in University Place, Washington, the organization has chapters throughout the United States and in Germany and Japan.
DeLise, who grew up as a military brat and is married to Staff Sgt. Troy Stemen, a drill sergeant assigned to the 229th Military Intelligence Battalion at the Presidio, said she runs for Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jeff Burgess, Army Sgt. Adam Kennedy and Army Pvt. 1st Class Barrett Austin. Kennedy was a friend from high school; Burgess she met in college; and Austin was the first service member killed in action during her husband’s first deployment. All three deaths brought home the realities of war for her.
“I remember [Austin’s] parents being there, and the tree being planted, and that then shifted things for me personally to a new level as a spouse, knowing that this is real,” DeLise said. “This is very much our lives. This could happen to us. So many of these men and women in service to our country were so young. Now we’re here and I’m getting to that point where I’m old enough for these to be my kids. It’s a whole new level.”
Roman begins and ends each run with a prayer that is inclusive of all faith backgrounds, and said he especially appreciates the circles of remembrance.
“We go around in a circle, and you see the tears in people’s eyes and they’re announcing, ‘This is who I run in honor of,’ because it’s their way of working through that loss and that grief,” Roman said. “A lot of people don’t understand this but being in the military and losing people or being related to the military and losing people, you just don’t work through that loss or grief for a day or two. You work through it for a lifetime.”
The runs also help the military and civilian communities connect to the military ethos, Roman said.
“[It’s] the whole idea of ‘one team, one fight,’ ‘we’re in this together,’” Roman said. “It’s become part and parcel in how I live my life and how I work through stuff in my life and my family. I’m not the best runner in the world, but I love doing it, my wife does it, my kids come out on it, and they get connected to the larger community.”
Roman said that during the Sept. 3 run, two people on the recreational trail asked him about the wear blue runners. The encounters, which happen regularly, help foster a sense of community between the military and civilian communities, he said, and sometimes people pledge to join the next run.
Many of the service members who participate in the runs are students at DLIFLC, and Roman said the runs help him connect students with the warrior ethos, their history, and the history of those our country has lost.
“We’ve lost a certain number of linguists in the field too, within deployments that we’ve had, and we try to connect them with that knowledge, knowing that you are not just in a job,” Roman said. “You’re in a family and we take care of one another.”
Those who participated in the Sept. 3 run ranged from service members who have attended the runs for nearly a year to newcomers.
First Sgt. Guy Smith, assigned to Company G, 229th MI Bn., said he discovered the wear blue runs when he organized a running group that also met on the Lower Presidio on Saturday mornings. His group soon joined the wear blue runners.
“I just became enamored with it because I’ve lost friends and colleagues in the Global War on Terror,” Smith said. “I said, ‘This is a great opportunity to honor them and be around like-minded people so we can celebrate the lives of those who are deceased and also just memorialize them and be a voice of triumph for them because they were so brave.’”
Smith said he has enjoyed seeing the group grow and the festive nature of the runs.
“It’s not a somber event; it’s a celebratory event,” Smith said. “We do have moments of silence and things like that, but it’s not like we’re going to a funeral. It’s something much more uplifting than that and that has inspired me in this dark age of negativity.”
Likewise, Spc. Nafisa Kabir, assigned to Company A, 229th MI Bn., said she became involved in the organization about a year ago.
Kabir said the runs boost her morale. “It’s a good reason to want to run and stay active,” she said.
For Seaman Melissa Raab, a service member at the Presidio, the Sept. 3 run was her first, but likely not her last.
“I thought it was awesome,” Raab said. “I really liked everyone pushing each other along the road and everyone was really encouraging. It makes you feel good afterwards. You get to join in a community of other runners. You get to do something healthy. You get to remember everyone who came before you too.”
DeLise said that although the Saturday runs are noncompetitive, she is a running coach and can help runners set goals and improve. She first learned about wear blue while running the Marine Corps Marathon, which she has run five times.
Some wear blue participants plan to run the Monterey Bay Half Marathon on Nov. 13, and a training program is on the organization’s website. “If there is ever a big, scary goal you’re looking for in your running mind, we’re here to support it,” DeLise said.
The organization’s Saturday runs take place at 8:30 a.m. every first Saturday of the month at the Lower Presidio. The organization also plans the 9/11 remembrance run at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 10 at the Lower Presidio. For more information, contact DeLise at email@example.com and Roman at firstname.lastname@example.org.