Those who gave their lives during America’s wars are honored on Memorial Day, but this year one veterans’ group hopes people will specifically remember 65,502 of them.
The number represents the men and women who have died serving the United States since the beginning of the Vietnam War, and it is the number “wear blue: run to remember” plans to memorialize Monday.
The 60-odd chapters of “wear blue” — the lowercase a reminder of the maxim, “the mission is bigger than the name” — gather every Saturday to run in honor of fallen vets, a ritual that takes place from coast to coast and in Germany, Italy and Japan.
For this Memorial Day, they hope to expand their membership and get runners or walkers everywhere to move in remembrance of lost service members.
“We want Americans this Memorial Day thinking, ‘You know what? I’m going to remember this year; it’s going to be personal this year,’ ” said Lisa Hallett, a founder of the group in Tacoma, Washington. “This Memorial Day we are charging the nation, if you will, to honor with us.”
Mrs. Hallett is not only a tireless promoter of “wear blue: run to remember,” she’s also a member. Her husband, Capt. John Hallett, was killed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in August 2009, three weeks after he deployed there with the Army’s 117th Infantry Battalion and days before the couple’s daughter, Heidi, was born.
“We were struggling, it was a terrifying time,” Mrs. Hallett said of that 2009 summer. Hallett’s unit took extensive casualties, losing 41 soldiers, and Mrs. Hallett said crushing weekly emails to the tight-knit community around Washington’s Fort Lewis Army base would contain the dark news of another soldier killed in action.
She suffered through the nightmare of two officers in green uniforms — a tradition she said began during the Vietnam War — pulling her out of a family meeting to inform her “your husband is believed to have perished in the fires.” A general later called to confirm the awful news.
Since wear blue’s first run in February 2010, more than 50,000 people have participated and roughly 15,000 are regular members who honor a fallen family member or another veteran each weekend. Thus, Hallett is but one fallen vet mentioned each Saturday by the DuPont, Washington, chapter.
Mike Brown runs there every weekend, and he mentions his West Point roommate from the class of 1967, First Lt. Peter Lantz, who was killed in Vietnam. Rachel Elizalde remembers her brother, Adrian, an Army soldier killed in Baghdad with the First Special Operations Group.
The members — who typically run 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles — took their blue color from the original runs when participants were asked to wear the “physical training shirts” vets had worn. The 117th Infantry Battalion uses blue shirts with a buffalo on it.
“Who we honor is more important than any logo or branding,” Mrs. Hallett said.
On any given weekend, “wear blue: run to remember” runners will read out the names of service members killed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks during that anniversary week, but the group envisions a much larger presence this holiday.
For Memorial Day, “wear blue: run to remember” is asking anyone willing to run or walk any distance to contact its website. Participants will be given the name of a fallen service member and the date they were killed in action from data kept by Honor the Fallen, a website run by the Military Times.
“The idea was, how do you thank a vet?” Mrs. Hallett said. “We figured you sweat with a vet. You learn their story and then you run.”
The purpose of the exercise is to put a positive, life-affirming spin on what could be an otherwise sad outing. Dedicated “wear blue” members see their runs as part of the “unfinished work” the service members “so nobly advanced,” to borrow from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The project also includes “running mentorships” for surviving children of veterans, which is part of having “healthy, resilient survivors,” Mrs. Hallett said.
She imagines her husband, a West Pointer, would have wanted it that way. The couple met when she was in kindergarten and he was “an older man — in second grade,” in a northern California Catholic School.
The couple had three babies — two boys in addition to Heidi, although they have a kind of dark blonde hair rather than red, the mother said.
While “wear blue: run to remember” is essentially a loosely organized conglomeration of chapters, it does some public outreach. At the annual Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the group erects huge profile shots of service members who were killed in action with full-sized American flags. The group does the same at the Army Ten Miler, the All-American Marathon at Fort Bragg, the Rock’n’Roll San Diego Marathon (in support of the U.S. Navy), and a dozen additional races across the country.
While the “wear blue” club members typically run 5K, there is no distance requirement for Memorial Day participation. One doesn’t even have to run: Even if it simply a walk around the block, Mrs. Hallett urged walkers to personalize it by naming and remembering a specific service member fallen in duty in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq or another place where combat has occurred in the last 60 years.
The group isn’t looking to ignore any of those fallen in the Civil War or other conflicts. The time frame was chosen to bring this Memorial Day home to a kind of contemporary living memory.
“We want Memorial Day to have a genuine purpose for people, a remembrance of life and country,” Mrs. Hallett said.