Dean Smith ran, each footfall punctuated by the jingle of metal. For his first memorial marathon, he had asked the wife of his fallen friend and brother in arms, Tyler Swisher, if he could have the honor of wearing his dog tags as he ran. But this year, there was another set dangling from his neck that hadn't been worn since they had been recovered. The tags were mangled and belonged to a man he had never met. Smith said he wore them proudly—they were brothers, after all. The clinking followed him along the way, all one hundred miles.
Smith’s run this past Memorial Day was the second his organization, Alwaysbrothers.org, had established for the benefit of the bereaved families of fellow marines who had died in combat. On May 26th, Smith, the president of Always Brothers, along with core members and the residents of various communities along the trail, ran one hundred miles for the families of the Lima Company, a reserve Marine battalion stationed in Columbus, OH, which lost 22 Marines and one Navy Corpsman KIA in Iraq in 2005. All the proceeds from the run went to the children the marines left behind, with the hopes of helping them pay for expenses such as school.
“Everyone is thankful and everyone’s appreciative but sometimes just saying ‘thank you for your service’ to a guy just isn’t enough,” says Smith.
What is Always Brothers?
Always Brothers began after Smith ran the 2010 Marine Corps marathon in Captain Tyler Swisher’s memory, in combat boots no less. Swisher had been killed in action in Iraq in 2005, but in the early 90s, Swisher and Smith had both served at Camp David together. Smith did not discover that his friend, the cocky, “poster boy marine” had been killed until 2010. After coming back from that marathon and sitting in front of his computer, staring down his Facebook, he called on his marine brothers to help him with an idea.
“We all talk smack to each other usually. But this was more of a like, ‘hey guys, this is what I just did.” He says. “Our idea for a reunion is going 100 miles,” he laughs quietly.
Half of the men who participated in the first run had served with Smith but didn’t even know Tyler. Smith was the link between them, but he maintains that in the mindset of a marine, personally knowing a fellow brother or not at all is irrelevant.
“The day after 9/11, how everyone was looking out for each other and nice to each other, that’s the feeling you get when you see the marine sticker on the back of someone’s car. That’s your brother,” says Smith. “Doesn’t matter if you know his name, you go up to him and shake his hand. That’s the feeling you get with a million other marines, from World War II to present day.”
Smith, a 39-year-old father of two who runs his own business, dove straight into the armed forces, knowing and anticipating what he was in for.
“I wanted to do the hardest thing I could do, and I was the poor kid, college wasn’t exactly an option for me,” he says. “I wanted the biggest challenge.”
So it seems pretty natural for the Macomb, Michigan resident, a steeled marine who can run for more than a solid day and claim to be ‘fat’ would want to take on 100 miles in 96 degree weather.
“We’re a bunch of 40-year-old fat guys trying to run,” says Smith. “It was just tough.”
The first run, dedicated to Swisher and his family, started at Camp David and followed back roads with an intimate cluster of runners. The run lasted 27 hours and ended at Arlington Cemetery, Tyler’s resting place.
“That’s where it started and that’s where it was supposed to end,” says Smith. “But then the night after the run we decided to keep going.”
It was clear as the group started off on the run for the Lima Company that Smith’s initiative was snowballing.
“Ohio became the community’s way to thank the guys that died for them and the ones that are still serving,” he says. “I’ll tell ya, the Swisher family did most of the heavy lifting for that Lima run. They said ‘we want to pay it forward.’”
After raising $100,000 between both runs, the immediate future of Always Brothers consists of a run on Memorial Day 2013 in Seattle, this time to help fund research on both the physical and mental causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the subsequent suicides relating to PTSD. After that, things get hazy.
“We’re not real sure,” he says. “We’ve kind of defined ourselves as the kind of guys that come in, find a problem and raise money for it. I hate the term ‘raise awareness’, but sometimes seven years after these guys die it’s really easy to forget their names. Just to keep those guys alive, that’s really the point.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.