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Miles of grief lead this runner to honor fallen soldiers

Lisa Hallett holding a photo of her husband John
KUOW Photo/Kate Walters
Lisa Hallett holding a photo of her husband John

Mile one: “Oh my God, the babies didn’t stop crying for the last hour and a half.”

Mile two: “I need to buy diapers, what am I going to make for dinner, there’s baby food stuck in the carpet, what am I going to do?”

Mile three and four: “All of a sudden the business and the high energy of that day to day life with young children, it starts to quiet down.”

Mile five: “It’s just quiet, there’s nothing.”

Mile six: “Oh shit, my husband died.”

That’s how Lisa Hallett recalls the runs she took after her life was ripped apart in 2009.

Her husband John Hallett was killed during his deployment in Afghanistan and she was left with a three-year-old, a one-year-old and a newborn baby her husband would never meet.

She still remembers the day the army told her he was gone.

She was at a military family meeting at Joint Base Lewis-McChord when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She remembers a long walk across a parade field and two men in green suits.

“The gentleman on the right, he had a white piece of paper and he read it. And he reads, ‘The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband, Captain John L. Hallett, is believed to have perished in the fires…’ and I stopped listening,” Hallett said.

“So many words in there you can’t erase: perished, fires. But the most important word was 'believed.'”

Hallett held onto that word for was long as she could. But she couldn’t escape the reality.

“John’s not really going to come home from this deployment. We don’t get our best friend back, our father, my husband,” she said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lisa Hallett and her three children", "fid": "125862", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/_DSC8582.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Ingrid Barrentine, Grit City Photography"}]]A single mom with three young children, Hallett had to find a space where she could grieve without being consumed by that grief.

Her children had already lost their father to war, she did not want them to lose their mother to grief as well.

So she started processing her grief through running.

“John didn’t die so that we can be the ghosts,” Hallett said. “We’ve got to celebrate life but I still need that space to remember John.”

Those early runs let Hallett do that. They let her come to grips with her loss. She was both physically and emotionally broken down during those runs. But she rallied.

“It’s that deep breath. OK, I’ve already accomplished six miles, what am I already accomplishing in my real life day-to-day?" she said. "By the end of the run I’m feeling stronger, a little bit tougher and a little bit fiercer and just confident that I can raise my children and that I can live a life that was worth John’s sacrifice.”

The strength that Hallett drew from running became her framework to remember without becoming lost in the past.

“I can be inspired and I can let those daydreams of the past not be something that breaks my heart, but that feeds me with the foundation of what my life is and really inspires me to keep living.”

The year John died, Hallett wasn’t the only one to lose a loved one. That year, 41 soldiers were killed in combat and it took a toll on the community at home.

Hallett and some other military spouses recognized the power of running as they processed their pain. And out of desperation to survive a really tough time, they started a small running club.

Erin O’Connor and Lisa Hallett felt the need to gather their community. It started one day with three other women running around the JBLM airfield. 

They showed up again the next Saturday, this time calling out the names of the men they had lost before running around the airfield. As it continued, sometimes there were three, sometimes 15 runners.

“Slowly as we met every week, our steps really became transformative in how we dealt with the deployment,” Hallett said. "It gave us a place to remember, and it gave us the strength to recognize that we weren’t facing this alone.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Wear Blue Memorial Day run 2015", "fid": "125860", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201604/2015_memorialday_093.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Ingrid Barrentine, Grit City Photography"}]]That running club started by Hallett and O’Connor is now a nation-wide organization with 15,000 runners. It’s called Wear Blue: Run To Remember and the aim is to honor the fallen and create a support network for military families.

People across the U.S. gather together to run and remember each week.

[asset-images[{"caption": "A pre-run circle of rememberance in Springfield, VA.", "fid": "125861", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201604/dc_saturday_255.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Ingrid Barrentine, Grit City Photography"}]]Right now, their goal is to ensure that each service member who has been killed in the global war on terror is honored by a runner this Memorial Day. People can sign up and receive the name of a fallen service member who they can honor through running or walking on that day.

Hallett will be running with her children on that day, remembering their father.

It’s been nearly seven years since John died in Afghanistan and Hallett says she’s changed a lot in that time. In her words, she’s become “less vanilla."

“I’m more Rocky Road, I’m a little bit grittier, but I think that makes me more interesting and more poised to be a person who can change my community, my family, maybe the world,” Hallett said.

Of course, she still finds the space in her running to remember John.

“When I think about what I miss about John, it’s not the American military hero. What I miss about John is terrible dancing in the living room, sharing family meals, chatting on the back porch. I think the hardest part of losing someone you love is the small day-to-day life,” she said.

This story originally aired April 25, 2016.