“Last year on Thanksgiving, I found out a friend of mine, Sgt. Jason Smith, was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device,” said Capt. Jason W. “Duke” Dequenne, the assistant logistics officer at The Basic School, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “When I started to look up what happened, even weeks after, there was very scant information.”
“Smith was an explosive ordnance disposal technician,” Dequenne said. “He saved lives. Every device that he went out and defeated, even the one that ended up killing him, was intended for more than one person. He’s a hero. Where’s the story for that?”
The lack of details about Smith’s story triggered Dequenne’s desire to increase awareness.
People need to know how these young Marines are willing to lose their lives at the front lines, Dequenne said.
On Oct. 15, 2011 Dequenne set off on a journey that few have ever attempted; he started running to help raise awareness about fellow Marines and sailors who died while protecting freedom.
His goal was to run 236.2 miles, from the birthplace of the Corps in Philadelphia Pa., to the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., one mile for each year since the Corps’ inception and each mile dedicated to a fallen Marine or Sailor who was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Dequenne called the run “A Mile in Their Shoes.”
“’I wanted to honor fallen Marines and Sailors who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan by literally going out and running a mile in their shoes,” Dequenne said.
Dequenne compiled a list of the 237 Marines and Sailors he would honor. With each mile, Dequenne told each heroes story.
He contacted media outlets along the way to bring attention to his plight, which in turn would bring more attention to those for whom he was running. He tried to contact those who had been closest to the fallen – ultimately talking with 132 different families. He also spent many late hours making phone calls and, at times, felt as nervous as a young man calling a girl for the first time, Dequenne said.
Dequenne personally knew eight of the heroes he was running for, others he met while he was enlisted.
The first and last Marines to whom Dequenne paid tribute were his friends. Gunnery Sgt. Ralph “EJ” Pate Jr. was honored in the first mile and Sgt. Shawn P. Martin, EOD technician, was honored in the last mile, both by their spouses’ requests.
Along with a few other specific requests, Dequenne tried to match Marines with landmarks and hometowns that coincided with each Marine’s personal or family connections, where possible.
Dequenne ran for Lance Cpl. Ryan J. Sorensen and Lance Cpl. Daniel F. Swaim at miles 126 and 127 through Fort McHenry, the birthplace of the national anthem. Both Marines served with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines and lost their lives in Iraq.
Setting out and accomplishing the goal of running 236.2 miles was one thing, but what really drove Dequenne to the finish were the memories of the fallen and the people he met along the way.
“The special parts were the moments with the families of those for which I was running,” Dequenne said. “Not all the Marines received the Medal of Honor like Cpl. Jason Dunham, but in my book they’re all stellar Marines. They did much tougher things than me. I still have the privilege of running.”
Some families met Dequenne on his route.
Sgt. Michael W. Heede Jr.’s family and friends came out to meet Dequenne and gathered in Joppatowne, Md., near mile 120 of Dequenne’s voyage.
“I’m proud of the work he did, but he’s still one missed child,” said Gloria Heede about her son. “I make sure he’s never forgotten.”
Though Dequenne was the only Marine running he was not alone in accomplishing such a daunting task. He had family and friends supporting him along the way and sponsors and safety teams making sure things went smoothly.
Even with safety vehicles, comprised mostly of volunteers from Disabled American Veterans Maryland Chapter and Smaltz’s Harley Davidson of Pennsylvania, Dequenne had a few close calls along the way.
In Philadelphia, a car ran through a police blockade and missed clipping Dequenne’s knees by a few feet.
“Another near miss was in Washington when a school bus failed to yield in the crosswalk to me,” Dequenne said. “It came within an arm’s reach.”
To fund his run, Dequenne had many partners who donated time, talents and resources, though most of the finances were out of his own pocket, Dequenne said.
The culmination of Dequenne’s run was completing the 36th Marine Corps Marathon. Dequenne ran 15 miles each day leading up to the start of the 26.2-mile course.
“I feel pretty good because I have 210 miles behind me and just a short marathon distance to go,” Dequenne said, two days before the race. “I’m sore, I’m very tired, but I’m motivated.”
Dequenne said the best part of the experience was knowing that he brought comfort to the hearts of the families who lost their loved ones.
Tom Sileo, friend of Dequenne and author of the Unknown Soldiers Blog, said what Dequenne did was phenomenal.
“Dequenne was reminding America that men and women put themselves on the line and give their lives for our freedom,” Sileo said. “He brought attention to something we all need to be thinking about.”
Dequenne finished the Marine Corps Marathon at 4:25:37. As he finished his final run, achieving his goal and passing the finish line, he touched the hearts of the families of the Marines and Sailors he honored. He ran a mile in their shoes.
Dequenne plans on running again next year to commemorate the Corps’ 237th birthday.
To read more about the Marines and Sailors Dequenne honored on his run, visit http://freedomthroughsacrifice.org/our-fallen-heros/.