Ready to run: Rhinelander grads make final preparations for ultramarathon

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
22 Oct 13

By Andy Hildebrand

Since July, when the River News first told the story of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Rhinelander native Brett Foley and his longtime friendship with David Chrisinger, their cause was clear.

The duo want to run an ultramarathon, 50 miles, to raise $10,000 for an organization they truly believe in – The Mission Continues.

The Mission Continues is an organization that encourages returning veterans to embrace many of the approaches Foley himself used to readjust to civilian life – structure, purpose and service.

The pair also have a website where they have published stories about Foley’s struggles with post-traumatic stress after returning from active duty.

RHINELANDER GRADS MAKE FINAL PREPARATIONS FOR ULTRAMARATHON

Post Race Photo

Now, with less than a week to go before race day, the pair is within sight of the finish line. They’ve already raised about half of their goal, but in many ways, their priorities have changed.

Through the process, the miles of training, the many discussions about post-traumatic stress and The Mission Continues, the two friends have reached the point of closure, and a new beginning.

“There have been a lot of interesting developments along the way,” Chrisinger said. “Once Brett finishes the race, he’s come full circle and we’ll have told his story.”

As the race nears, Foley, who was training to become a police officer when the process began, is beginning to see more than one finish line approaching.

“It’s kind of the culmination of what’s been going on for me and what I’ve been dealing with,” he said. “I got a job offer this weekend from a police department in Price County and the race is next week. Things are a little hectic now that we’ll be selling our house … and moving everything north. It’s very humbling.”

After the article in the River News, an area television station ran a story about the pair. Now, Chicago Athlete Magazine is developing a story about Foley. Their profile is higher than ever, increasing visits to their website. Chrisinger said running50.com has had around 12,000 unique visitors up to this point.

The increased traffic helped raise money toward their goal, but it has also had another effect.

“After the first article came out, a Vietnam War veteran messaged me and told me no one would have done that after Vietnam,” Chrisinger said. “He was excited to see how far we’ve come in the last 40 years and that we’ve become so much more compassionate toward the struggles veterans go through.”

By telling Foley’s story, he’s been turned into more than an example.

“A couple of his old Marine buddies have emailed or left messages for him saying they didn’t realize he was going through the same thing they are,” Chrisinger said. “Just a few days ago a friend of his messaged and said he was having some of the same relationship problems Brett had. He’s really turned in to an advocate for some of the people he served with.”

It’s a role Foley has embraced.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that veterans need to get things off their chest,” he said. “They hold things in and need to get it out. If I can be an outlet for people to do that, it’s great. I’m glad Dave and I were able to do that together.”

While the original goal was to help provide returning veterans with the purpose and resources they need to properly readjust to civilian life, the project served a dual purpose. It helped people who haven’t served understand what veterans like Foley go through. While that started with Chrisinger, the message quickly spread.

“The reaction from our old friends has been incredible across the board,” Chrisinger said. “They didn’t know any of this about Brett and didn’t know it was so bad for him. They were learning about his story without him having to tell them face to face. To tell his story without having to tell everyone personally was good for him. It’s been a very positive reaction to what we’re doing and many of them have donated.”

Chrisinger is passionate about the subject, and while he may never fully understand exactly what veterans like Foley endure, he said it’s important to realize civilians can help with the process.

“It’s been very rewarding to me to be able to explore some of the emotions that I have about the subject,” he said. “People without military backgrounds still have feelings about it. We’ve gotten feedback from both sides of this and that’s been really positive. Sometimes there’s this disconnect between people who have been in the military and those who haven’t. It’s been really beneficial to have that dialogue and I don’t have to be a veteran to empathize with veterans.”

That’s why when the pair were given the opportunity to spread that very message, they jumped on it.

In early September, Chrisinger and Foley were invited to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chrisinger’s alma mater, to tell Foley’s story to an undergraduate class called “Running and the Meaning of Life.”

“A former professor of mine invited us to talk,” Chrisinger said. “We talked about Brett’s experiences in the Marine Corps. and my experience moving to Washington D.C. and the confusion that goes along with that stage in your life. We really stressed the importance of finding a purpose and working toward something bigger than yourself. The feedback was great and the class wrote notes to us with really positive messages.

“One student wrote about how her aunt was going through hard times and my message of simply listening struck a chord with her. That’s what I did with Brett. It was great to know we had touched their lives.”

The lecture was a success. What started as just a talk though, may have turned into something much larger.

“Afterwards, we met with the administration and the alumni association,” Chrisinger said. “They were curious to see if I would be interested in teaching a class for new veteran students. We would read about other veterans’ experiences and talk about Brett’s story. The class wouldn’t come out until fall 2015, but UWSP is really working to become one of the most attractive schools in Wisconsin for military veterans. That would be an amazing way to continue this project. It’s a way to grow the model Brett and I started. If we can do that with all these new veterans coming back to school, and if I can help prepare them for the transition back to school, that would be incredibly rewarding for me.”

The pair will have another opportunity to spread their message, as well as address a question that’s come up throughout their time together when they give a presentation to students at James Williams Middle School this fall.

“It will be an opportunity to introduce them to Brett and tell his story,” Chrisinger said. “We want to focus on the fact that there will be five million people who were in the military after 9/11 coming home. What will be their legacy? You have World War II veterans labeled the greatest generation and then the Vietnam guys who had a much harder time. What will our generation’s legacy be? We hope that they use the skills they learned in the military at home to better their community. Instead of putting their military experience on the shelf and pretending it isn’t there, or climb into a bottle and never climb out. We’re very excited about that.”

Throughout this process, Chrisinger has made a powerful connection to his own family history. Foley’s story has made him reconsider the behavior of his own grandfather. Down the road, he’d like to turn these realizations into a book.

“My grandfather was a tank driver in World War II,” Chrisinger said. “He was in a really terrible battle where they went in with 30 tanks and left with eight. When he came home, he didn’t talk about it and drank a lot. He never got over it. When he passed away, I was in eighth grade and (he) was estranged from the family. I never had a meal with him, never got a birthday card from him and when he died, I thought, ‘Big deal, I didn’t even know that person.’

“When I started working with Brett, I really wanted to prevent him from getting to that future. My grandfather never came to grips with it and never dealt with it. I started doing research on him and the battles he was in and wondered what would have happened if someone would have just got him to write about it or talk about.”

The project has grown well beyond its initial objectives. Foley’s story has been told and now he’s an advocate for those he served with and others dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Chrisinger’s involvement began by simply lending an ear to a friend in need. Now, he’s dedicated to helping veterans readjust to life at home and has even found a connection with his deceased grandfather.

It’s a story of healing and growth, and one with much left to tell.

First, the two have to run their 50 miles.

“We are going to make all 50 whether we have to crawl across the finish line,” Foley said. “I promise you that. It will be painful and we’ll be mad at times, but we’re going to finish.”

That was the endgame all along. Despite the pain and struggles, just finish.

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