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John Reyes runs with a mission

Good Dirt

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Staff Sgt. John Reyes: 'I chose to carry the flag to honor those who have died.' - TIM BERGSTEN
  • Tim Bergsten
  • Staff Sgt. John Reyes: 'I chose to carry the flag to honor those who have died.'

It won't be the cover of Rolling Stone, but for John Isaac Reyes it could be the next best thing ... the cover of Runner's World magazine.

The 34-year-old Army staff sergeant from Colorado Springs is among five male finalists, one of whom will be selected for the December cover. The magazine's editors wanted inspirational stories that describe how running changed their lives. A national search netted thousands of applicants, but they found what they wanted in Reyes' story.

"I saw they were looking for people to apply, and I thought, whatever, I guess I'll do it," Reyes says.

Enlisted for 15 years and counting, Reyes was deployed five times, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. He began his career as a machine gunner and worked his way up to squad leader, performing the tough jobs, patrolling narrow, dangerous streets common in Middle Eastern cities. His platoon, called "Shadow," engaged in many gunfights. He suffered shrapnel wounds to his femur, triceps and forearm in Fallujah, where he and his men fought every day for a month in 2004. A year later, Shadow battled in Mosul.

Ten soldiers in Reyes' unit lost their lives. The experience left many with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reyes came home a different man, troubled and angry. He says he was not diagnosed with PTSD, but his anger issues were a problem, and he often directed that anger at civilians as he struggled to make sense of life at home.

"It was the complaining that got to me," Reyes says. "People in Kuwait, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are kids walking barefooted, eating nothing but rice, wearing the same clothes every day, and people here would complain about simple things that really didn't matter."

Anger management therapy helped him sort through those issues. An athlete for much of his life, he played football in high school and enjoyed short runs by himself. As an adult, his therapist encouraged him to pursue running to help suppress the negative energy that boiled within him.

"I tried it, I ran more, I ran farther," he says. "I picked up trail running and it helped a lot. Out there, you're really not focused on anything except trying to not trip and fall down. Out there, the old personal issues are not important."

His battle isn't over, but he is helping lead the way for others. Reyes is now the athletic director for Team Red, White and Blue in Colorado Springs, an organization that works to "enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity." (Check out Team RWB's Facebook page. The local group is part of a national organization, teamrwb.org.)

It's common to see team members participating in runs and cycling events throughout the Pikes Peak region. Everyone — military and civilian — is welcome to participate. "Just give it a try. That's what I tell people," Reyes says. "It opened my eyes. We're just trying to help each other. We don't care how fast or slow you are. It's just about being together, being healthy and having fun."

But the work is serious, and the team has been rocked by the crushing and dark effects of PTSD. Two members of Team RWB took their own lives in the past few months.

"That's one of the main problems," Reyes says. "Soldiers getting out [of the military], they don't know how to cope at home. One of my friends was in jail five times. He came here to get better, and he did. He was two months sober, going to church, going on trail runs. But something triggered him; he picked up the alcohol and drugs again."

That man committed suicide. Nine of Reyes' military friends have died that way.

He remembers them by carrying the U.S. flag in local running races. Reyes is not the fastest runner, but his stride has purpose as the Stars and Stripes catch the breeze above him. It is a moving sight.

"I didn't start carrying the flag until I joined Team RWB," he says. "It was my choice. I started my running and I wanted it to mean something. I chose to carry the flag to honor those who have died from suicide and my buddies who were killed in action, too."

If he isn't selected for the cover of Runner's World, Reyes said the magazine will still print a short story and photo of all the finalists. Short video interviews with the runners can be found here.

Reyes never expected to see himself in Runner's World.

"I really think the other runners have stories that are more inspirational than mine," he says.

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