Soldier Salute: A 26.2-Mile Tribute to a Fallen Hero

The main gate to Fort Benning, Georgia, stands in the shadows of four 50-foot pillars and a semicircular colonnade of 20 American flags lining an arch bridge over Interstate 185. At the top of the two pedestals facing away from Fort Benning stand bronze statues of “Iron Mike” and the “Trooper of the Plains,” emblems representing the Infantry and Armored branches of the Army. The other two pillars face the gate, and are topped with bald eagles. In a landscape dominated by pine trees and not much else, it is truly an imposing site.

My brother Thomas points them out to me as we head onto the base, with a casual remark about unnecessary expenditure and a missed opportunity for professional humility. He’s kidding, kind of. To my brother, who’s been an officer in the Army since June 2006, the work he and his colleagues do isn’t about bragging rights or recognition. It’s simply about holding American ideals higher than personal ones, doing your job well, and not asking for any thanks. I admire his work ethic but I disagree with his take on the monument.

To me their work is truly remarkable, distinguished by countless personal sacrifices and an unwavering devotion to the principles of democracy. That may sound lofty, but that’s the way I see it from the outside. The work and dedication of the armed services deserve more gratitude than statues can ever provide. I tell my brother this as we drive under the arch, reminding him also that there is tremendous intangible value in monuments that cause people to feel pride. Pride is what I feel, at least, as we drive onto the base on the morning of Saturday, November 12, to run the second annual Solider Marathon as members of “Team Daren.”

The Soldier Marathon means different things to different people. The City of Columbus, Georgia, supports it as a way for the citizens and soldiers to connect, and recognizes it as an important part of their drive to encourage fitness in the population. To the wives, husbands, and families of soldiers deployed, it’s a way to honor them on yet another day when they can’t be together. And for those who’ve lost a soldier on the battlefield, it’s a way to remember that soldier in solidarity with the military community on this special weekend following Veterans Day. Marathon organizers have provided special bibs to wear in addition to the traditional race number, a bib to honor your own personal fallen hero. We see these bibs on the backs of runners we pass on the course, on the sleeves of those who pass us, and on the chests of runners who are so far ahead that they’re running back towards us. We see the memory of fallen heroes everywhere today. We see names like Army Pfc. Steven Shapiro, Army 1st Lt. Andres Zemeno, Marine Sgt. Daniel Patron, and Air Force Master Sgt. Tara Brown. We see hundreds of names on hundreds of bibs.

We are wearing Daren’s name.

Army First Lt. Daren Hidalgo was killed in action in Afghanistan on February 20, 2011. He was 24 years old. The younger brother of my brother’s West Point classmate, Daren is survived by a network of family and peers who are keeping his memory alive through Team Daren, a charity to benefit wounded soldiers and their children. I never knew Daren, and until this weekend I did not even know his story. But I’ve been asked to join a team of five—four servicemen and myself—assembled by my brother to support the Hidalgo family. It’s an invitation I happily and humbly accepted.

The moon still hangs high over the pre-dawn frost when Army Captains Dan Mitchell, Dan Strathman and Thomas Leonard; Marine Captain Drew Schillace; and myself gather to attach our race bibs and review the logistics of our relay points. Each of them is a combat veteran, some of whom are decorated for valor, and some others who are headed to special operations assignments very soon. They are all great guys, highly entertaining and extremely intelligent, not to mention physically fit. Despite all that – or maybe because of it – none of them will admit to being “a runner.” The night before, we all agreed that, as the guy who dislikes running the least, I will take the first and longest leg, a seven-mile tour of Fort Benning.

The starting gun goes off promptly at 7 a.m. During my run, my thoughts turn to the men and women behind this place and the sacrifices they’ve made to become a part of this institution. It’s not long before I’m grappling with the notion that their path carries with it the unyielding possibility that each one of them may one day die for their country. It’s completely overpowering.

My seven miles are done before I know it, and I send our second runner off for his leg of the race, another 5.5 miles. Each subsequent leg of the race rolls along nicely for “Team Brothers,” the name we’d given ourselves at registration. We all keep a sub-7:30 pace throughout, and the real power in our engine comes from Dan Mitchell and Dan Strathman, who each churn out their miles at around a 6:30 pace. My brother Thomas takes the anchor spot, and we meet him at the Avenue of the States, a 300-yard marble corridor lined with the banners of each American State that leads to the finish line. As Thomas rounds the corner onto the Avenue, we join him and finish the race together at a full sprint, the first relay team to cross the finish.

For us and many others in the field, this was not about competition, personal accomplishment, record setting, or victory. Quite frankly, the only reason we finished in first place is probably because all those who would have otherwise beat us had stepped up to the greater challenge of the half- or full marathon. The reason we did this race is because it offered the chance to be a part of something bigger than any of that. We came to support a family who has given a sacrifice most of us will never know, and to help them honor the memory of a son who left too soon.

Soldier Marathon:

Fallen Heroes:

Team Daren:

Info on the gateway:

Places to Go, Things to See: