For one war widow, moving on is a marathon

July 7, 2012

Lisa Hallett’s 26-mile run begins before sunrise in a gravel parking lot on the edge of Puget Sound.

She climbs a steep hill bracketed by thick woods that double as an Army training range. By 6 a.m., she is moving through streets clogged with soldiers commuting to nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Hours pass, and the ache in her legs builds. A cold morning rain soaks her shirt. Around Mile 14, she turns onto a narrow running trail. The nervous energy that buzzes in her head starts to fade.

It is at this moment that he arrives. He is walking next to her in a red shirt and khaki shorts.

“Stop walking,” she tells him. “I am running as fast as I can, and you are always walking. It makes me feel bad.”

The man she is seeing has been dead nearly three years. He is her husband, Capt. John L. Hallett III, who was killed in August 2009 in Afghanistan when insurgents exploded a bomb underneath his armored vehicle. In those first days, she wondered if she’d ever sleep again. She spent much of the first year clinging to the irrational hope that he might return.

Now the war that claimed John’s life is increasingly an afterthought, and Lisa, 31, is one of thousands of widows from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq trying to get on with their lives. Everyone seems to be moving on, including the other soldiers and spouses from John’s unit who have left for other bases and other assignments. Lisa, meanwhile, remains.

“Stuck” is the word she uses sometimes to describe her life. It is a life in which she is in constant motion, trying to get people to remember wars they’d rather forget and the soldiers who have died in them.

She sometimes wonders if she should be handling her loss better. Three other soldiers were killed in the blast that killed John. In the first months after he died, Lisa and another woman who was widowed in the same explosion often stayed up late exchanging messages on Facebook. They discussed what to do with their husbands’ clothes, whether to move away from Lewis-McChord and when to take off their wedding rings.

“I will never find the right person if I leave this ring on my finger. But I can’t take it off,” Lisa wrote. “I don’t want to live this life pining for a relationship that no longer exists. I don’t want to spend forever feeling sorry for myself.”

“I think you need to set a date for that ring to come off,” her friend replied.

Today her friend is married and pregnant, and Lisa wonders why that kind of future seems so far away for her. She still wears her wedding ring, though on her right hand; her husband’s uniform is in a pile on her bedroom floor; and she writes in her journal in the form of a letter to John: “It’s hard sometimes seeing other people’s lives move forward when I still feel stuck, crippled by the anxiety of a life without you.”

On a Saturday morning, she is rushing to get her children out of the door. Heidi, who is almost 3, won’t finish her cereal. Bryce, 4, can’t find his T-ball shirt. Jackson, 6, is struggling to ram his feet into his baseball cleats.

“Mommy,” he calls from down the hall. “I can’t . . .

“I am hearing a problem,” she says to Jackson as she searches for her keys. “Do you have a solution? A solution would be, ‘Mommy, can you help me?’ ”

There are Froot Loops on the floor in the kitchen and a mound of crushed Goldfish crackers by the front door. Lisa slips the cleats on her son’s feet. As she hustles toward the car, she doesn’t notice the check made out to her for $100 that sits on the front porch. The next day a gust of wind will carry it down the street.

She drops the children off with a babysitter and, a few minutes later, is standing in a nearby park with 175 people in matching blue T-shirts and running shorts. She started the group as a way of getting people to remember.

At 9 a.m. the runners gather in a circle — as they do every Saturday morning — and bow their heads in a moment of silence for the 6,481 U.S. service members killed up to that point in Iraq and Afghanistan. One by one, they recite the names of the people for whom they are running. Lisa’s turn now.

“Captain John Hallett,” she says.

The group’s origins trace back to the first months after John’s death, when his battalion was averaging a fatality a week, the highest rate of any battalion in the war to that point. Lisa and some of the other spouses from the unit began meeting on Saturday mornings for runs. At first, she was the only widow among them.

The group, which numbered about two dozen women, wore their husbands’ royal blue workout shirts and met in a Burger King parking lot at Lewis-
McChord. After a month, they decided to run a marathon. Lisa drew up their training plan and rose before 5 a.m. to mark the day’s course and set up water stations. In June 2010, the group ran the Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, and a few days later, the soldiers from John’s battalion returned home from their deployment. The next Saturday, only four women showed up for the running group.

“I can’t lose this,” Lisa told her friend Erin O’Connor.

The two women canvassed Lewis-McChord for new runners. Lisa bought 100 royal blue T-shirts bearing the slogan “wear blue: run to remember,” which became the group’s name. Erin sold them out of her car on Saturday mornings.

Last year, the running group sold about $50,000 worth of blue T-shirts and other clothing, and now Lisa finds herself worrying about such things as forming a nonprofit group, buying liability insurance and arranging a lease on the group’s new storage facility.

Someday she hopes the group will have a paid staff and chapters at military bases throughout the country. She imagines Heidi growing up, joining one of the chapters and calling out her father’s name while surrounded by people who want to remember him.

At the moment, though, she has a more pressing worry. She is short on people willing to don blue shirts and hold American flags at this year’s Seattle marathon. She needs 67 people to stand with the flags along the route for about three hours. Each flag represents a dead soldier with ties to the group through John’s brigade or one of the marathon runners. Curtis Brake, one of her most steadfast volunteers, suggests they plant some of the banners in the ground.

But to Lisa, the suggestion misses the point of the flag line. If people are not holding the flags, they are not actively honoring the dead soldiers’ sacrifice, she explains. She rattles off a list of places — Lewis-McChord, the local college ROTC programs, a retirement community — where they might find additional race day volunteers. Curtis promises to try them.

The following day, one of the other volunteers revisits Curtis’s suggestion.

There is a rare edge to Lisa’s voice. “I already told Curtis no,” she says.

Lisa is most concerned that her children remember. So­ ­­­on another frenzied day in which she woke at 4:30 a.m. to bake M&M squares and bike 21 miles, she pauses to tell her 4-year-old son, Bryce, a story about the black-and-white photograph of him, his elder brother and his father that hangs in their living room.

Bryce is leaning against his mother. He has his father’s narrow face and thin frame. In the photo, John is balancing Bryce on his right knee and corralling Jackson with his left arm. “You were so little that you couldn’t crawl,” Lisa says. “We were at the park in DuPont. You were wearing a light blue shirt. Jackson had a dark blue shirt.”

“What color was Daddy’s shirt?” Bryce asks.

“Daddy had a blue shirt. It was his favorite color,” Lisa replies.

“Tell me all of that story,” he presses.

Lisa searches for a little more to say. “I got a bad haircut that morning,” she says. “It didn’t look good. And that is all of the story.”

There aren’t many pictures of John and Bryce together. John worked six days a week for most of the year leading up to the deployment, which was the first year of Bryce’s life. He slept in his office once a week so that he could get a jump on the next day.

He never saw his daughter, Heidi. His battalion commander offered him a chance to stay behind so that he could be with Lisa for the birth. But John knew that he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if one of his soldiers was hurt or killed during those first two weeks.

His last phone call from Afghanistan came five days after Heidi was born. As soon as Lisa realized it was her husband, she started to nurse the baby so that she would not fuss.

“Why haven’t I heard Heidi cry?” John asked.

“You’ve got a lifetime for that,” Lisa replied. “Don’t worry. Just talk to me.”

Jackson comes home from kindergarten around 3 p.m. He has his mother’s blond hair and wide-set blue eyes. He grabs a new book that arrived in the mail that day and asks Lisa to read it to him. She bought the book about a shark who is mourning his best friend, a remora eel, so that her children know that it is all right for them to feel sad and talk about their loss.

“From the time Gilbert the Great White Shark was a tiny pup, Raymond the Remora Eel stuck to him like glue,” she reads. A few seconds later, Bryce comes running down the hall from the kitchen and settles onto Lisa’s lap.

Lisa taught grade school when John was a platoon leader, but she put her career on hold as they moved from military base to military base. Her voice is easy and animated. The two boys listen with slack-jawed attention.

Soon the shark has reconciled himself to the loss of his remora eel friend.

“He’s stuck in my heart,” Gilbert explains. “I shall never lose him there.”

Lisa closes the book and looks at Jackson. “Do you have anybody stuck in your heart?” she asks.

“Nope,” Jackson replies.

Bryce is silent.

“No Daddy stuck in there?” she asks.

The two boys don’t answer. They scamper down the hall to play.

At other moments, the boys are eager to remember. Lisa tries several times a day — in the car, at the dinner table, at bedtime — to create memories for them. Because of Lisa, Jackson knows that his father could swim faster than almost all of the soldiers in his battalion. He knows that John could wiggle his ears, and that he became airsick whenever he flew on helicopters.

On a Saturday morning Lisa and the two boys are baking cookies for Jackson’s baseball game. Jackson pops a piece of raw dough in his mouth. “Don’t eat that, or you’ll get worms in your stomach,” Lisa says.

“It’s not really true,” Jackson says.

“Grandma used to say that to Daddy,” Lisa says.

“Now he knows it’s not true?” Jackson asks.

“Now he knows for sure,” Lisa replies.

Lisa wonders what it will be like when she no longer remembers. When an entire day or week will pass without her thinking of John. “Two years ago,” she says, “the thought would have left me on the floor in tears.”

Now it just saddens her.

“How was your date with the lawyer?” asks Lisa’s friend Michelle Reichert. Lisa is at the Reicherts’ house for dinner. They are among the last of her friends at Lewis-McChord who knew John. Almost all the other couples have moved on to other assignments.

“He never asked me out,” Lisa replies.

Lisa began dating in October and has been out with a handful of men, but none of the dates have led to a relationship. Michelle wonders whether the lawyer was “scared off by the kids.” Her husband, Ryan, speculates that he was intimidated by John’s military background.

“He was intimidated by my awesomeness,” Lisa jokes. “I really thought we were going to be a good match. He’s Catholic. We texted a few times and then nothing.”

Today, Lisa still uses the present tense when she talks about John.

“That’s John’s office,” she says as she cruises past a big brick building on Lewis-McChord.

“When John and I go to Houston, we eat Tex-Mex,” she tells a friend.

Someday she knows that John will fade into the past.

For now, though, it is another Saturday morning, and Lisa is running. Her muscles are sore from a 41-mile run a week earlier. She is battling a foot injury. Her pace is slow and plodding as she waits for John to arrive.

He appears around Mile 10, walking silently next to her.

“John, if you don’t push me up this hill, I am going to be so mad at you,” she says.

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