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Memorial Day tribute: The race not run

As we approach Memorial Day, I am struck by how much my personal life was affected by one of the soldiers we honor on this holiday, even though I never got the chance to meet him.

Every year, West Point gets a certain amount of slots for cadets to run in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. The race is a favorite of both avid runners and marathon newbies because of its relatively flat course and breathtaking views of national landmarks. It is one of the largest marathons in the world with 30,000 runners participating each year. In October 2003, a group of four firsties (also known as seniors at most colleges) from West Point traveled to Washington to run in the race. They were Rick Clapp, Mike Nemeth, J.P. Quisenberry and Lynn Jackson.

I went to high school with Rick and we kept in touch through college. After he finished the race, his fiancé, Erin, and I took him to lunch to congratulate him on his accomplishment. His classmate, Lynn, came along and told us the hilarious (and somewhat insane) story about how he was a last-minute addition to the group and hadn’t really trained to run it. His friend, Gary, was a devoted runner and eagerly registered for the marathon, but a week and a half before the race he decided that he couldn’t participate and looked around for someone to take his slot. Lynn volunteered, even though the farthest distance he had ever run was only 7 miles — about a quarter of the 26.2 miles needed to complete a marathon. The Sunday before the race, he went on a 20-mile jog just to make sure he could run that far. They didn’t have time to change the name on the registration so he ran the marathon as Gary.

I couldn’t stop laughing at the thought of someone crazy enough to run a marathon with virtually no training and then not even getting credit for it. I was amused, but also kind of impressed. We hit it off, started dating and eventually got married. I had every intention of tracking down Gary at a reunion for the West Point Class of 2004 so I could thank him for not running in the Marine Corps Marathon that year. Every day our actions, and sometimes even our inactions, affect the lives of others in ways we cannot foresee. His seemingly insignificant decision not to run that race changed the course of my life. Lynn and I have been happily married for 16 years and have three beautiful kids.

I was never able to meet Gary at a class reunion because he didn’t live long enough to attend one. He died in combat serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and joined the Long Grey Line of West Point graduates who gave their lives in defense of our country. The Class of 2004 has sustained more combat casualties than any other graduating class since Vietnam. They lost 12 graduates in the Global War on Terror.

Army 1st Lt. Garrison “Gary” Avery was killed on Feb. 1, 2006, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee in Baghdad, Iraq. He was only 23 years old. His life, though entirely too short, touched the lives of those he knew as well as complete strangers. During his cow (junior) year at West Point, Gary started a nonprofit organization called Light by Morning to help Iraqi orphans. He also had a profound impact on my life, and I never even met him.

I didn’t get a chance to thank Gary, but I think about him every year on Memorial Day. To some, Memorial Day is merely the official start of summer, filled with pool parties and cookouts. But to the military community, it is a solemn day of mourning and remembrance. It is the day that we honor the heroes who gave their lives in service to this country and grieve with the families and friends left behind.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name.” It is our duty as a country to remember the fallen so they do not die a second time. Every year on Memorial Day, we sit down with our children and Lynn pulls up the West Point Class of 2004 In Memoriam page online. He shows our kids pictures and tells them stories about all 12 of his fallen classmates: 1LT Benjamin Britt, 1LT Amos “Camden” Bock, CPT Michael Cerrone, CPT John Dennison, CPT David Fraser, CPT Jason Holbrook, CPT Paul Pena, 1LT Robert Seidel III, CPT Adam Snyder, CPT Daniel Whitten, 1LT Dennis Zilinski, and 1LT Garrison “Gary” Avery. They are gone, but are not forgotten.

Lauren was an intelligence analyst until the military lifestyle ended her career. She recently started freelance writing and was featured on Scary Mommy. Check out her new blog Camo & Cookies about military and mom life and follow her on Twitter.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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