News: Running for our lives in Iraq
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — The 553rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion is nearing the end of its 15-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. To celebrate this accomplishment, a group of 553rd Soldiers hosted a 5.53 mile run in the heart of Victory Base Complex.
The 5.53 mile course took participants through the streets of VBC, passing amazing sites such as the Al-Faw Palace, General Odierno's residence, and the area's beautiful man-made lakes. While the 553rd CSSB's Leopard Run was created to celebrate the successful mission accomplishment of a battalion headquarters, it also served as the pinnacle event for a group of dedicated — if not slightly crazy — runners in the battalion.
Upon arrival to VBC last year, several Soldiers from the 553rd's Support Operations Section laced up their running shoes and hit the streets of VBC, braving heavy traffic and unpredictable weather. Even though their numbers fluctuated daily, a SPO Soldier could always be seen running the streets in the early morning hours. Daily run distances were based on the individual and ranged from two to 15 miles. Before long, the SPO runners began to see the results of these morning runs through individual weight loss and improved Army Physical Fitness Test scores.
This motley group eventually morphed into an unofficial run group with members consisting of Soldiers from other staff sections and subordinate units. Due to work obligations and schedules, the group could never manage an official run group status. However, this unofficial status enabled the battalion's runners to enjoy the fellowship of running when it suited their schedule without the stress of obligation. Basically, if a Soldier woke up in the morning and felt like running with a group they were considered a member of the running group.
In the summer of 2008, the 553rd CSSB's unofficial run group discovered the sponsored races held throughout VBC. During this time, most of these races were sponsored by Morale, Welfare and Recreation, and were usually no longer then 10K. However, as the months rolled by the group started to notice a larger variety in the races. Military units and civilian organizations began hosting running events that were fun, creative, and challenging. Of course, even for these hard-core runners who enjoyed the demanding run routes, the free t-shirt and a chance to win the "T-Wall" trophy were the biggest draws of all.
Capt. Christopher Etheridge, a native of Norman, Okla., and a member of the 553rd CSSB's unofficial running group, enjoyed participating in the runs for various reasons: "I viewed them as a personal challenge," he said. "For example, I ran a 10-mile race recently and was surprised that I could finish it without stopping. Additionally, I looked for the races that supported a worthy cause such as the "Who's Your Hero Run" that enlightened the public on the devastating disease, Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma."
The 553rd CSSB's unofficial running group's motto of "Running for our Lives in Iraq" is a statement that was derived from several factors.
One is the unpredictable weather of Iraq. During the summer the thermostat can top 117 degrees in the shade. Couple the heat with sandstorms, and the average runner will be finished before they even get started. However, the horrid conditions do not faze the 553rd runners. They just put one foot in front of the other and carry on to the finish line.
Sgt. 1st Class Joel Hernandez, a native of Aurora, Ill., recalls one 10K race — "That day was so dusty and windy that you could barely see the person in front of you. By the time I crossed the finish line I was completely covered in dust and my normally dark hair was white." When Hernandez was asked why he would run in those conditions he stated, "It was cool. How many people can say they ran a 10K in a full-blown dust storm?"
Finally, "Running for our Lives in Iraq" is an explanation of how running can help soothe the frustrations and anxieties that come with being separated from your loved ones for a long period of time. For many of the 553rd runners, the simple act of running serves as a healthy substitute to the vices that are not allowed in theater. It also helps the runner to work out issues, prepare for the day, and stay physically fit, all of which enable the individual Soldier to work at their peak performance.
The 553rd runners understand the benefits of their obsession and will continue to lace up their running shoes and hit the streets until the day they finally leave Iraq. Some of the members will continue to run daily when they get home while others will scale back due to other obligations.
Regardless of their individual running habits, the 553rd CSSB unofficial running group's runners will return to the U.S. with fond, and sometimes painful, memories of the determination, people, and places that were a part of their running experience in Iraq.