Pat Thompson is a first lieutenant in the United States Army and also serves as Duke’s Director of Basketball Operations. Last week, Thompson completed a six-day, 500-mile run with six of his former Duke ROTC classmates from Durham to Ground Zero in New York City. The Chronicle’s Daniel Carp spoke to Thompson about his experience.
The Chronicle: In addition to raising more than $45,000 for charity, The Freedom 500 project gave you the opportunity to reconnect with some of your old classmates from Duke’s ROTC program. Describe the feeling of being able to accomplish this with them.
Pat Thompson: We loved it. We had such a great time doing this. Obviously we did it for the charity, The Mission Continues, but for us, personally, it was one of the best weeks we had. Some of our guys have been deployed. We’ve been all over the country, and to have all seven of us back in the same spot again for a week was a lot of fun.
TC: Your run benefited The Mission Continues. Tell us about the cause and why you chose to support it.
PT: There’s a lot of veterans’ organizations out there, and The Mission Continues is hands down one of the best. It was started by a Duke graduate, Eric Greitens, who is a former Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholar—he’s pretty much done everything. A few of us had met him before and had some interaction with him, so we figured what better non-profit to support. They help the transition for veterans coming back from a deployment or leaving active duty. It’s really difficult for a lot of soldiers to make that transition to the civilian world, so what they do is provide community-service based fellowships in the soldiers’ hometowns that are paid and help them with career-tracking and networking.
TC: Especially running with five members of your team who had previously been deployed and transitioned back to civilian life, how important was this cause to you?
PT: Very important. For us, we know we’re helping others, but we know that we’re going to use this someday too. The Mission Continues is for everyone—officers, enlisted men and women, everyone. And for us to be a small part of that and to support that is something we’re really proud of.
TC: Who in your group was most recently deployed, and when did they return from overseas?
PT: We had two guys who actually came up with the idea for the run, Phil Cotter and Matt Jones. They were both deployed to Afghanistan. Matt got back probably about five weeks before the run, and Phil got back about three weeks before the run. We just went right into it.
TC: Your friends who recently got back from deployment, are they planning on working with The Mission Continues to aid their transition to civilian life?
PT: Two of our guys are captains, and they are about to transition out of the Army. They’ve already contacted the Mission Continues, and they’re definitely going to look at options and see what they’re going to help out with.
TC: What was the toughest stretch of the week for you?
PT: I had a run where I ran at midnight for five miles, I ran at 3 a.m. for seven miles and then at 6 a.m. I ran through downtown Baltimore, which can be a tough area, for another three miles. By 7 a.m. I had run 15 miles, that was pretty tough to try and recover and get some sleep.
TC: Your father served as one of the van drivers for The Freedom 500. What was it like to get to share this experience with him as well?
PT: That was one of the cooler parts for me, personally. I think of anyone, he probably enjoyed it the most. I got to run with him the first night, and then he got to run each other night with one of the guys from my van. I think he really enjoyed getting to know them, and it’s something that we’ll always remember.
TC: Your group stopped at Arlington National Cemetery on the way. What was that like?
PT: Very moving. Very powerful. It’s incredible to see the amount of graves that are there, and just to know that they represent an individual. Everyone there has served their country, whether they died in battle or died in retirement. It kind of puts in perspective, a run like this, for veterans, 500 miles is small compared to the sacrifices that some of those guys made. They’re just incredible heroes.
TC: Your other stop was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. Did anyone in your group have connections with the patients there?
PT: One of Phil Cotter’s soldiers from his company was there, so we got to meet him. He had lost both of his legs to an explosive device. He was incredibly positive. You would have thought he was just fine because of his outlook on life, so it really puts our problems in perspective. We don’t have a whole lot to really complain about.
TC: What was the most meaningful moment of the run for you?
PT: It’s the moments that you least expect that make the most profound impact. We were in a small town in Virginia, and we met a woman who saw our police escort and I think she had heard about us on the radio. She came out to the road and we got to talk to her for a little bit. Her husband had died in Afghanistan. She literally was in tears, thanking us for what we were doing.
TC: What was running through your mind when 500 miles later you saw the New York City skyline?
PT: I just wanted to get there. We had been running for so long. I ran the final 12 miles to the Freedom Tower that morning. It was a two hour run, and after running a lot more miles earlier in the week, I was pretty tired. I just wanted to get there, and we had an incredible escort by FDNY and NYPD for that last 12 miles.
TC: Mike Krzyzewski is an Army veteran as well. How were you able to connect with him through this project?
PT: Just asking his permission to take off a week of work for it, it took him less than a second to say yes. He was on vacation with his family, but he still texted me to let me know he was following us and wish me the best.
TC: You’ve worked with Krzyzewski since you were an 18-year-old basketball manager. What’s it been like for him to watch you grow and accomplish this?
PT: He’s not only watched me grow, he has helped me grow throughout my seven years here at Duke basketball. It is surreal. I’m proud of that connection. Sometimes in meetings, Coach K will throw out some old Army connections. And I’ll be the only Army guy in the room so he’ll look at me, and we’ll both share a laugh before he goes on with basketball. It’s really humbling to have that connection with him.