Running in Memory

Veronica (center) with her best friend Ashley (left) and another friend at last year's Run for the Fallen.
Veronica (center) with her best friend Ashley (left) and another friend at last year's Run for the Fallen at Ft. Riley, where Veronica ran the two-mile race. Two weekends, ago, she took on the 4-mile course at the 2014 Run for the Fallen, and had the race of her life.

Running has this subtle, special way of bringing up memories of lives that have passed, lives that we want to honor. That feeling grows exponentially on Memorial Day, which is dedicated to the military who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We are fortunate to cross paths with many mother runners at our parties, at expos, and online; one of them is former ROTC member Veronica Griffith, 31, who lives with family in Chapman, KS, near Ft. Riley, where her Army husband, SFC William Griffith, is stationed.

We wanted to tell her story, knowing that threads of it weave through so many other important stories around our country today. Ahuge thanks for all you military families, mother runners, personnel who serve and have sacrificed your lives.

Please tell us about your husband's deployments.
We have been through 2 deployments in our 11 married years, which is a very small number for most families. Our first was nine days after our wedding and before kids: 14 months in 2003-2004. The second was two weeks after our second son was born for a year in 2010-2011. Both were to Iraq: one at the beginning of the war, and one at the end. For now, he has no scheduled deployments, though there are a few possibilities next year. As anyone in the military can attest, what they say will happen and what actually do can change quickly. So, for now we say, "No, nothing upcoming."

What inspired you to start running?
My best friend, Ashley, moved here a year after us and said, ‘Guess what, we are doing this 5K.’ I think my response was along the lines of, ‘Oh, Lord, help me. She might kill me. But wure!’ I still often think she is out to kill me, but at least I'll have fun getting there!

Do you run with other military moms, or are you mostly a solo runner?
My training runs are usually solo, but I'm always up for doing them with friends. Usually our husbands' schedules come first and us all getting a time that works together is hard. My races are always with friends. Running in the morning kid-free is not an option as my husband leaves for work at 4:30 each morning. Since we don't live on post, he doesn't come home between PT (physical training) and work each day. He also goes in a bit earlier than normal so he can get some work done early—then he can come home early, between 5 and 6 most evenings. My runs are usually in the evenings, between him getting home and dinner twice a week, and a long run on the weekend.

Veronica's husband, William, and two of their three sons. (The stroller is dubbed "the Cadillac.")
Veronica's husband, William, and two of their three sons at the 2014 Run for the Fallen. (The middle son is hiding behind the stroller, which they dub, "The Cadillac.")

Can please tell us about each of the three men who died and you honored in the Run for the Fallen this year?
2LT John Vaughn: Sweet, fun, and an initially quiet man who made running and leading look effortless. He was like a brother to me and helped me get through so many hard times in college and ROTC, especially since my husband was either deployed or stationed in Germany throughout.

CPT Sean Ruane: Funny, and a doll of a man who was the life of a party. You couldn't not like Sean. He was in Air Force ROTC but did Army ROTC as his electives just for the fun of it. He left behind a wife and young son.

The life of any party. John and Sean back in college.
The life of any party. John and Sean back in college.

CPL Robert Sonnenburg: He was deployed with my husband this last time. He was a sweet, young kid, still figuring out who he was. He had a big heart, a love for God, and many friends. As the Platoon Sergeant's wife, many of the guys, including Bobby, I only barely knew.

My husband didn't hang out with his young soldiers—the military frowns on that—but he was like another father to many of them. Or at least thought of them that way. I used to joke that I had our three biological sons, and 25 more of them through the Army. My husband would come home and tell me what was going on with which soldier and I grew an understanding of each one. When the training  accident happened last year, it brought all of us together in a way that only the death of a brother in arms can. The barriers between ranks became blurred as we celebrated his life and the guys were no longer just 'brothers,' – we all, spouses included, became a family.

Bobby and his mother, Shauna.
Bobby Sonnenburg and his mother, Shauna.

When you run in a race like The Run for the Fallen, with such strong connections to honor your friends and loved ones, what does it feel like?
Just as mourning the loss of a friend or family member is different for each person, I imagine running these types of runs is the same. For me, it was very inspirational to see all the people, both runners and non-runners, coming out to honor those they've lost. I have never run a better race than I did this last week; I was almost a full minute per mile faster than my usual pace. I wasn't thinking about the run, my mind was elsewhere. People encourage each other, and as you run past others, or they run past you, you read the names on the backs of their shirts. You wonder about that person, and take a moment to remember them, though you may not have known them yourself.

Did you write their names on your shirts or otherwise indicate who you were running for?
I have a black shirt with the soldier's cross on the front and the guys’ names and death dates on the back. My husband has the same with Bobby's name. He has worn his shirt for every race since the accident.

Military wives Stephanie Frijas, Cat Sullivan, Miranda Sanchez (back), along with Annie Salkowski (Ashley's mom, back), and Veronica.
Military wives Stephanie Frijas, Cat Sullivan, Miranda Sanchez (back), along with Annie Salkowski (Ashley's mom, back), and Veronica.

You will be running Disney Wine & Dine this fall: how do you feel about 13.1?
My best friend, CPT Ashley Goldman, said, "We are doing this," and as usual I said, "Sure." After all, it’s an excuse to go to Disney! Ashley is currently a Company Commander here at Ft. Riley, who just got home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. Last time Bobby's parents came down to visit I was telling his mom, Shauna Emig, about the Wine & Dine, and she wanted in. So, we became a group. I'm sure his presence will be part of it. He is always in his mother's heart and on her mind. And just like my husband runs for him every race, I think she will too.

I hadn't met Shauna before the memorial for Bobby last year. But through her pain, she understood that the guys in the unit were dealing with a pain of their own also. She had a bunch of the guys flown up to Oregon for Bobby's funeral so they too could mourn his loss. When she and her husband came down for the services here on post, we had a lot of time together and really got to know the family. Like me, Shauna has three sons, though hers are all grown and each a man she can be proud of. I found a type of role model in her. She carried her grief with grace and through it was still compassionate to the guys. I imagine that is not something every person can do. She is a Gold Star Mother.

Does running help put military life into perspective?
My first 9-mile run was only supposed to be four miles, but I just kept going. I had so much to think about. Mostly, I think about my boys. When my husband's work is trying on our lives, I think about that. I joke that when I go for a run I am running away from home, and by the time I get to my turn-around or halfway point, I am ready to run back home.

I got married to my soldier while still in college, and we've been married 11 years. This is the only adult life I know. That said, being a military spouse is hard on a person's autonomy. I have a Master of Aeronautical Science degree I have never had a chance to use because jobs are less than few and far between on a military post in the middle of Kansas. I am blessed that the Army provides enough for us that I can stay home with my kids, but that means I don't have a lot of chances for doing something that makes me feel proud of myself. I know raising three sons is not easy, but running gives me something that is just for me, something my boys can be proud of me for, and the chance to stay in shape for my husband.

So, for me, I don't know that it puts military life into perspective more than if we were a civilian family, but it does help me find myself, and gives me the time I need to work through all the added stresses of being a military family. Because let’s face it: For the past 10 years, even if my husband hasn't been deployed, at least one of my close friends has been. Plus, there are continual training exercises—firing live ammunition and doing maneuvers in large machines—which means things are always risky.

If you'd like to thank the military and dedicate your miles today to a higher purpose, check out wear blue: run to remember.

Their mission today: Since the Global War on Terror began in 2001, America has lost 6,808 service members.  On this Memorial Day, wear blue: run to remember is committed to having 6,808 runners across the world run or walk in honor of these brave men and women.  Every mile counts.  Every person counts.  Anyone.  Anywhere.  Join as one community, in a shared mission, to honor these heroes with purposeful steps. Click here to dedicate your miles. 

2 responses to “Running in Memory

  1. Amazing tribute to her husband’s Fallen as well as her Fallen friends. I run with wear blue: run to remember as well so thank you also for mentioning them. They are a great organization that helps us all heal from the loss of our Fallen.

  2. Thank you so much for the reference to wear blue: run to remember. I am running the Marine Corp marathon. I ordered a wear blue shirt to wear in the race and look forward to the wear blue mile. What a great organization for a great cause.

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