Mike Brown, West Point class of 1966, reflects on wear blue

The wear blue community is comprised of hundreds of amazing men and women, who each feature their own layered story. I am privileged to share Mike Brown’s wear blue tale below.  Mike is a great American.  He graduated from West Point in 1966, and is the only Vietnam Cobra pilot known to survive being shot down.  Author of Missile! Missile! Missile! A Personal Experience, Mike runs as a member of the Joint Base-Lewis McChord wear blue Chapter.  I am always intrigued by Mike’s courageous life and and impressed by his careful reflections; I am glad to call him a friend. Please read his words carefully, as I think you will find an engaging story and thoughtful conclusion:

“I can't remember when I didn't think of myself as a runner.

As a farm kid growing up near Sandpoint, Idaho, there weren't always ready-made activities available to fill up discretionary time.  Biking and running were attractive escapes for me, so I learned early to do both.  I found that running was something in which I had a sort of informal competitive edge over many of my peers.  I can remember intensely competitive footraces in which I engaged as far back as first grade.  I didn't win all of them, but the activity fed an urge to demonstrate that I could do something better than the next guy.  

Over the years, I learned to enjoy the escape that running provided.  As a kid, I'd plan runs to explore nearby places that I wanted to know better.  I discovered that while running, I'd often run as much as several miles before I became suddenly conscious of the fact that I couldn't remember anything about the terrain over which I'd just run.  My mind would be so consumed in other thoughts, that the physical act of running would become a sort of “automatic pilot” mode which released my mind to a variety of other pursuits.  It became a way of escaping into my thoughts in a way that gave me a means to focus my mind in such a way that no other environment seemed to provide.  A teenager has a lot of thoughts that require intensity and focus.  

When I was in high school, I felt a natural attraction to competitive track.  We had what could be best described as a quarter mile dirt path around a field out behind the school.  In those days, Sandpoint had three boys' sports—no girls sports.  They were football, basketball, and track.  Partly because of the physical environment, there wasn't much interest in track.  The practice field was usually covered with snow until April, and after that, the running path was mostly mud.  Every spring, someone would take a pickup and go to one of the railroads to get cinders to spread on the track.  That was our cinder track.

My younger brother, Kevin, and I both found that running in track was a pretty reliable way of gaining recognition from our peers and from the coaches and teachers in our school environment.  Kevin ran the mile and I ran the half-mile.  As high schoolers, we were pretty good.  I ran the half around 2:00-flat, and Kevin could run the mile in about 4:30.  The two of us were the entire Sandpoint representation at the Idaho state track meet when I was a high school senior in 1962.

After high school, I entered West Point with the Class of 1966.  At West Point, running is normal life.  It's hard to imagine that a cadet's life would get through a day without some kind of running.   Beyond the normal routine, I was on the Plebe cross-country team my first year at the Academy.   Several conflicting interests, including the challenges of academics, led me to discontinue my competitive running activities after Plebe year.  Nonetheless, I'd occasionally get myself out on mind-clearing runs around the Academy grounds throughout my four years there.

1LT Peter J. Lantz

1LT Peter J. Lantz

My membership in the Class of 1966 positioned me in a way of which I was not aware at the time for my current interest in wear blue: run to remember.  Our class would go on to become what is known as the “bloodiest” class in the history of the Academy.  In terms of service, all but one of my classmates served in the Vietnam War.   More than thirty of our class made the ultimate sacrifice in that war.  One of those sacrificed was my First Class (senior) year roommate, Pete Lantz.  Pete and I were more than just roommates.  He was probably the closest friend that I made in my cadet years.  That friendship extended beyond our cadet life.  We continued our friendship, along with our wives, when we were both stationed at Fort Hood following our graduation.

Pete would leave Fort Hood for Vietnam in June of 1967.  I followed in August 1967.  Sometime in late November or early December, I was reviewing the casualty reports in the ARMY TIMES when I found Pete's name listed in the KIAs.  I knew none of the details; I would not learn anything more than the fact that he'd been killed until many years later.  After Pete had left for Vietnam, his wife, Dagmar, had relocated to the New York City area, and I had no contact information for her.  In those days, one couldn't simply enter someone's name in a Google window and find them.

More details of Pete's death came years later when I read Rick Atkinson's The Long Gray Line in 1990.  The book was a history of the service and sacrifice of the Class of 1966.  In order to tell the class's story, Atkinson focused on about ten of our classmates.  Pete was one of them.  For the first time, I was able to learn some of the details about where and how Pete died.  One of the things that I learned was that his daughter, Kristel, was born two weeks before Pete's death.  He died without ever having met her.

Pete's memory has been an important part of my life.  In 2005, through Internet contacts, I was able to locate his widow, Dagmar.  At the time, she was living near a site in North Carolina where I was working on a consulting assignment.  We were able to meet, and I was able to learn much more about Pete's death and its aftermath.  Much of this included a variety of difficulties—some of which had never been resolved—that had befallen Dagmar.  Among these was the retrieval of Pete's class ring.  The assistance of several classmates helped to resolve this and other issues.  I also committed to write Pete's obituary for the West Point alumni magazine, ASSEMBLY.

Another of my classmates who was featured in Rick Atkinson's book was John (Jack) Wheeler.  Jack served in Vietnam, and after he returned, he acquired a law degree.  He subsequently held a number of influential positions in business and government, but what's most important here is that Jack headed the Vietnam Memorial Fund.  This was the group that built the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.  

In a way that was much needed at the time, the Wall struck a chord among Americans.  The Vietnam War had been a very divisive experience for the country, and there was much residual bitterness after that war.  The Wall represented something that all but the most callous could agree upon—that regardless of policy disagreements during and after the war, there could be reconciliation with respect to honoring the service and sacrifice of those who sacrificed.  More than anything else, the Wall became a symbol of remembrance of the service and sacrifice of a generation of American military.  That need to reconcile probably resulted in the Wall's becoming the most visited monument/memorial in the nation's capital.

To this point, I've discussed two ideas that are very much a part of my life:  running and remembering.  To me, the genius that we know as wear blue: run to remember represents a unique integration of these ideas.  I've also tried to demonstrate how they are, and have been, a part of my personal life.  I was calling on Pete Lantz's spiritual encouragement on difficult runs long before I ever heard of wear blue.

wear blue: run to remember capitalizes on the runner's ability to scrub his or her mind in order to focus while running on the memory of a person.  It provides a vehicle for a sort of spiritual communication.  We call on our memory of that person or those persons to join us in our immediate activity.  We're able to sense that person's or those persons' presence as our minds transfer their focus from the strain of our physical activity to an enhancement of our memory of a person or persons.   The memory provides us with an energy for running that we, in and of ourselves, cannot provide.

But wear blue: run to remember does something more.  I've written of the kind of closure that has been provided by the Vietnam Wall.  It's a closure borne of remembrance.  It does that uniquely and beautifully in a way that few memorials have accomplished.  wear blue: run to remember incorporates that and takes it a step further.  That next step is called letting go.  The essence wear blue is that it is a running community that is a living memorial.  We don't stop at remembrance.  As Lisa has so eloquently stated it so many times, 'We gather, we remember, and then we go out and we do something life affirming.'

What a brilliant and apt metaphor for the grieving process!  I can think of no other activity that so appropriately memorializes the service and sacrifice of our Fallen. "

Mike Brown at a Saturday Run in DuPont, Washington. Photo Courtesy of Nancy Bamford.

Mike Brown at a Saturday Run in DuPont, Washington. Photo Courtesy of Nancy Bamford.