Seven Duke alumni took on a 500-mile run that bridged together their time at Duke with their service in the Iraq War Aug. 11.
Starting at the Duke Chapel, the runners—all of whom are active-duty officers in the United States Army—took on a six-day journey to the September 11, 2011 memorial in New York City to raise money for veterans transitioning into civilian life. The concept for the run, which was dubbed the Freedom 500, came to runners Phil Cotter, Pratt '10, and Seth Brown, Pratt '09, while they deployed in Afghanistan four months ago. After coming up with the idea, Cotter and Brown sent an email to their ROTC friends with the tentative idea for an “endurance challenge for veterans.”
The participants were all former Duke Reserve Officers Training Corps graduates.
“It was physically demanding, we were tired and sore, but it was a lot of fun,” runner Kase Diehl, Trinity'11, said.
The Freedom 500 was scheduled as a relay where the seven men were split into two RVs on 12-hour shifts. While the runners on one RV rested, the runners on the other van would relay. Each person ran for around four miles before switching off with another runner—a process that would continue until one van covered about fifty miles in total. Each runner averaged anywhere from 12 to 21 miles a day.
Since all seven of the runners were Duke graduates, they thought it was fitting for them to both start at the Duke Chapel and to also use the run to raise money for the nonprofit, The Mission Continues, which was started in 2007 by another Duke graduate, Eric Greitens, Trinity ’96. The organization works to help veterans transition back into civilian life by giving them a fellowship to work for 520 hours for six months at a nonprofit of their choosing.
“We were following them every step of the way through social media and their pictures until they ended up here in New York," said Meredith Knopp, vice president of the programs at The Mission Continues and a veteran hereself. "It was an incredible feat and they really exemplify what it is to be a veteran.”
The run ended up raising $42,846 in donations for the nonprofit, and donations are still be accepted.
All seven of the runners voluntarily joined ROTC while the nation was still at war. Diehl and Brown both described the run as something akin to a journey to where it all began.
“I joined at the height of the Iraq war,” Brown said. “I felt that there was a necessity for strong leaders to choose to join a that particular moment.”
As they ran into New York, the alumni were joined by 80 more runners as they finished the last miles and were greeted by the fanfare of crowds and firemen.
“Every single fire department had their engines on the road and had firemen lining up giving us high fives as we ran by,” said Brown. “They even had a fire boat spraying water 50 feet in the air.”
Near the end, flags were passed out to the crowd waiting for the runners at the finish.
“So we were running in an attack of waving American flags,” Brown said.
They finished in the fire station across the street from where the Twin Towers formerly stood and were given a private viewing of the memorial.
“And actually getting into that hallowed ground and being able to read the names of the memorial and see the Freedom Tower was just absolutely incredible and humbling," Diehl
In addition to fundraising, part of the run was meant for raising awareness for veterans’ issues in the United States.
“The best part of the run was just the overwhelming support we got from people along the way,” Diehl said. “And they would stop us by the side of the road and thank us and it was like we were watching out mission to get the awareness out.”
For the men, it was also an opportunity to reconnect with their college friends since all of them were deployed and stationed all across the world, from the east coast to the west coast to the mountains of Afghanistan.
"I know a lot of great guys through the ROTC program there and one of the best parts of the run was able to see these guys and reconnect with them,” Diehl said.
Jon Harless, Trinity'09, Matt Jones, Trinty '09, Michael Meehan, Trinity'10 and Pat Thompson, Trinity'11 and Duke basketball's director of operations, also participated in the run.