The Beginning of Run Ranger Run
By Jeremiah McCarthy
Feet pounding on the pavement, Cory Smith was just trying to distract himself from his failed marriage, the end of his military career, and the uncertainty of his future. The 565 miles from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Indianapolis gave him time to clear his mind, to focus on something bigger than himself. His goal was to keep negative thoughts at bay and to bring awareness to the difficulties servicemembers face when they transition out of the military.
His experiences may not be unique, but how he chose to cope with them certainly is.
In 2011, Smith was a corporal in the U.S. Army, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning and on his second deployment. From phone calls with his wife, he sensed that something wasn’t right back home, and he was eager to return and work on his marriage. That wasn’t in the cards. Shortly after his redeployment, in September 2011, Smith’s wife left with their daughter, Elliegh, and returned to their home state of Indiana. Smith thought that they would reconcile once the last leg of his four-year enlistment was complete; however, two weeks later, his wife asked for a divorce.
“So here I was, completely helpless, hopeless, not really knowing where I would be, and I had a lot of ruminating thoughts, bad thoughts — what do I do from here?” said Smith. “Thoughts about harming myself popped in my head plenty of times, and then, finally, I came up with this idea that I was just going to run home to my daughter because the only thing that I could do to get out of the apartment and keep myself mentally stable was just getting out running and listening to music and being out on the road by myself. At that point I thought, Why not? Why not just go ahead and run home to Elliegh?”
Having a bachelor’s degree in public relations, Smith knew that teaming up with a nonprofit organization could help facilitate his quest and shine a light on the struggles many veterans face when they exit the military. He ran into a few roadblocks before being introduced to Karl Monger, a fellow former Army Ranger who founded GallantFew, whose mission is directly in line with Smith’s agenda. Smith supplied Monger with the route he planned to run from Fort Benning to Indianapolis, and GallantFew helped Smith by connecting him with people at various points along that path.
BIRTH OF RUN RANGER RUN
On Jan. 3, 2012, Smith started his 565-mile journey. Local news outlets covered his progress, and people who had heard what he was doing came out to join him during the run.
“The coolest aspect that helped me keep going was the people that were coming out and running with me and people that were encouraging me,” Smith said. “These people were focusing on something good that I was doing at a time when I felt like I wasn’t good enough as a father or a husband — basically, my self-esteem was completely at the lowest point ever.”
On Feb. 8, 2012, Smith made it home to Indianapolis and Elliegh. However, after the homecoming, he faced the real beginning of his transition out of the Army.
“Once that light that was on me kind of went away and that whole part of the journey was over, I was faced with a real challenge and that was the more difficult part because I no longer had that reinforcement from others. I felt completely alone,” Smith said.
A few months later, Smith’s divorce was finalized and he had joint custody of his daughter, but he continued to struggle with housing and employment. He finally settled for a warehouse job he was overqualified for, but the benefit of being self-sustaining — and having a place for his daughter to sleep when she was with him — was worth the temporary hit to his ego.
“That’s when having Karl just a phone call away was probably the most beneficial,” Smith said. “He was able to help financially and support me [during the run], and then he was there for me when I finished the run, but after it was over, if it wasn’t for him and knowing that I had somebody there to call at any point in time — yeah, I would have been in much darker place.”
Monger had told Smith from the beginning that GallantFew was committed to helping him during his epic run, but he was also clear that the support wouldn’t fade after Smith reached Indianapolis. In addition to being a listening and supportive ear, Monger was able to give Smith some work writing blog posts for GallantFew’s website.
LEANING FORWARD – INTO THE FIGHT
Upon hearing about the trials and tribulations of his transition, Smith was invited to speak at the annual Battlemind to Home Symposium at Purdue University in 2012, where he met Michael Ross. Ross, a clinical social worker, became the mentor and “squad leader” Smith needed to get his life turned around.
“Michael became my Ranger buddy. Even though Michael was never in the military, he had a lot of things that we connected on,” Smith said. “He had been divorced, and he had felt like he had been completely abandoned, and by talking with him and going through the things that he went through, I was able to process my own difficulties. Michael became that friend, my advocate — he was there, close to me, so I didn’t have to necessarily call anybody to say, ‘Hey, I need help.’ He was already there, and Michael kept on pushing me and pushing me — he got me connected to people and did all the things that you would hope that somebody would do for you when you get out [of the military].”
Through the embrace of Run Ranger Run’s message of “Community and Commitment”, Smith started working as a mental health clinician at the St. Vincent Stress Center. Not only did the new position pay him $5 more per hour than his previous warehouse job, it also paved the way for a new career. Smith enrolled in Marion University’s nursing program, a similar course to the physician assistant (PA) program he had considered while still on active duty, then transitioned into a job in Methodist Hospital’s emergency room. He earned his nursing degree in 2013 and is currently enrolled in law school.
And despite how difficult that part of Smith’s life was, he knows that he made the right decisions because of where he is now and how he’s been able to help others. The message of Run Ranger Run really resonates with Smith because he knows if one thing would have gone differently — if his wife wouldn’t have left him, if he hadn’t been introduced to Monger, if he hadn’t decided to run to his daughter — things would look very different now.
A year after Smith completed his run home, GallantFew launched Run Ranger Run as an annual fundraiser. The concept is that groups of up to 10 individuals will register and pledge to run, walk, or bike 565 miles (the distance from Fort Benning to Indianapolis) during the 28 days of February. In the six years that the fundraiser has been active, GallantFew has raised more than $1 million and has grown to include more individually specific programs, including The Darby Project (for U.S. Army Rangers), Raider Project (for U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command veterans), Wings Level (U.S. Air Force veterans), and WAM Project (for female veterans).
“Karl always told me from the beginning, ‘You’ll never really know when you have made an impact on someone — you’ll never know. We’re going to help prevent suicide, help prevent somebody from getting to that point. You’ll never really know it, but further down the road, you’ll be able to see the impact that you make on others.’ And ever since then,” Smith said, “that’s kind of just stuck with me, and it’s really cool seeing how from going through my darkest time, I was able to shed light on other people during their darkest times.”
ABOUT RRR AND GALLANTFEW
GallantFew is a veteran assistance nonprofit organization that focuses on helping active duty military personnel transition to civilian life. Founded by former U.S. Army Ranger officer Karl Monger in 2010 with an initial focus on transitioning Rangers, the organization has grown to include specific focus groups, as well as a general category for transitioning veterans who operated outside of those specialized communities. Transitioning veterans (Future Guides) are partnered with a local-to-them veteran (Guide) who has already successfully transitioned out of service and comes from a similar military background. The Guide assists the Future Guide with everything from finding housing and employment to participating in community events that can reconnect them to civilian life.
The fundraiser Run Ranger Run developed out of the actions of 3rd Ranger Battalion veteran U.S. Army Cpl. Cory Smith. With multiple deployments and firsthand experience of friends being killed or wounded in action, Smith wanted to draw attention to the difficulties soldiers face when they return from combat. To do this, he decided to run, walk and bike 565 miles from Fort Benning, Georgia, to his home in Indianapolis in 2012. GallantFew supported Smith during his mission, and they worked together to develop the annual Run Ranger Run fundraiser. To date, Run Ranger Run has raised more than $1 million dollars.