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Dave Smith crossing the finish line at the 2016 Boston Marathon

A Vet's Marathon Run Leads to Unexpected Healing

August 25, 2016 5 minute Read by David Smith, Ashley McConkey

David J. Smith is a post-9/11 veteran and a Team 43 Sports alumni.  He joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  He was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return home experienced severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  Smith took ownership of his transition and sought help for his injuries.  Today, he is an example of what a successful veteran transition can look like.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to run the 2016 Boston Marathon on behalf of the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, sponsored by Energi, Inc. Running the marathon was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, but the race wasn’t the main event that weekend. 

A little over a decade ago, Lance Corporal Alex Arredondo was killed on a rooftop in Najaf, Iraq.  My good friend Alex grew up just outside of Boston.  To many Marines, he was the epitome of what a Marine leader should be: strong, brave, and intelligent.  Alex led from the front and always put his Marines first.  Sadly, his bravery led to his death during an intense gunfight in Iraq.

On August 25, 2004, Alex Arredondo was killed while checking on his Marines and ensuring his team had food, water, and ammunition.  They had been under sniper fire for about an hour when Alex raised his head above the wall to pinpoint the enemy’s position.  He was shot through the temple and killed instantly.  Losing Alex hurt all of us deeply and left a gaping hole in our hearts.

This year while in Boston for the marathon, I had the opportunity to visit Alex’s final resting place, meet his family, and tell great stories of the impact that Alex had on our lives.  It was a healing experience in that it allowed me to close old wounds and it gave me a new perspective on his death.  As we stood over Alex’s grave, it was not the sad event I had been dreading, but instead a celebration.  

I could feel Alex’s warm embrace and I knew he was at peace.  Given the chance to change the events, Alex would not have changed his decision to serve or to give his life protecting his Marines. Knowing that puts me at peace as well.  During the marathon, I ran with Alex’s dog tags around my neck and an American flag in each hand.  As I was running, I could feel Alex there running with me.  

Running for the Bush Institute's Military Service Initiative allowed me to honor all of the men and women who volunteered to serve their nation, just like Alex.  I ran with many other veterans, active duty military, and law enforcement and we talked about missing the camaraderie and sense of purpose that comes with service.  It was great to be around other veterans and to share stories of deployments and bond over common experiences. 

I finished the marathon at a time of 3:50.  While I was pleased with my runtime, I was even happier that I was able to see Alex again, meet his family, and share stories with them.  The experience I gained by reliving the brotherhood and camaraderie by running alongside my fellow veterans was invaluable. 

 I am thankful for the opportunity to raise awareness of the Bush Institute’s work on behalf of veterans.  And I now understand what made Alex BOSTON STRONG! 


Author

David  Smith
David Smith

Corporal David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  Smith was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

One event, in particular, hurt him the most.  During an intense gunfight one night while trapped on the roof of a burning building, Smith caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position.  He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building.  Acting on instinct, Smith shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and Smith wounded one of them.  That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated.  Smith lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing.  It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life.  Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”

Afterwards, Smith says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong.  Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak.  Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun.  That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”

Smith participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide.  At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again.  It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors.  Since then, Smith works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress.  In February 2015, Smith participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”

Today, Smith is a great example of Post-Traumatic Growth.  He has re-focused himself, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life.  After graduating from UC Berkeley, Smith interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects.  He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu AS, a software start-up company, while running a veteran transition resource blog on the side.

“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Smith. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”

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Ashley McConkey
Ashley McConkey

Ashley McConkey manages communications for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is responsible for message development on behalf of the Economic Growth, Human Freedom and Military Service initiatives.

Before joining the Bush Center, McConkey worked in the communications and public policy arena in Austin, Texas for both non-profit and corporate entities.  She also served as a Budget and Policy Adviser to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. 

McConkey grew up in Greenville, Texas and moved to Austin to study Political Science at St. Edward’s University.  She and her husband reside in Dallas.

Full Bio