After working behind the scenes for the Honor and Remember National Run for the Fallen in 2018, storm-chaser and videographer Chris Conley was so touched by the families of fallen service members, he vowed to strap on his running shoes and participate the following year. Conley, who once claimed to hate running, not only helped to spearhead a Kentucky Run for the Fallen in 2019 but also now considers himself an ultramarathon runner.
Conley, who turned 50 in June, is currently training for his latest challenge, a 50-mile trail run at Lake Barkley in the spring. His current training consists of running no less than 22 miles per week, in tribute to the reported number of veterans that commit suicide each day. On one of his recent training runs, he thought of another way to keep the memories of the fallen heroes of these Gold Star families ever-present — in the form of toy soldiers.
“I’m trying to find ways to reach out and get in touch with these Gold Star families — we had about 30 show up to the run (for the fallen),” Conley said. “I was running at Rudy Mines and passed a gnome village and then passed a hollowed-out tree. I thought, ‘How about I set up my own village right here?’ And that was that.”
Inspired by the 252 military service members who have lost their lives through accidental death, suicide and illness, according to the National Honor and Remember organization, Conley created a plan to carry 252 miniature soldiers into the trail. He purchased the first 100 soldiers from Consumers Mall and is awaiting the rest by mail.
On Monday, Conley wrote the names and KIA (killed in action) dates of the first four soldiers and placed them inside the hollowed-out tree Tuesday morning during his trail run.
“One soldier for each mile,” Conley said, after publicly posting the names of the first four soldiers on his Facebook page. “Placed in the hollowed tree were SPC Eric S. Bivins, 6/26/2017, SGT Darrin K. Potter 9/30/2003, SPC David W. Taylor 3/29/2012, CPL Matthew T. Winkler 9/16/2016. Thank you for your sacrifice.”
Since posting photos of the miniature soldiers and his mission on social media, Conley has received requests from at least 10 other families in various other states to remember their loved ones. He has also spoken with other runners who want to assist with his efforts.
“I have two runners now, other than me, packing four in each time they go out,” Conley said.
A combat veteran who has struggled with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) himself, Conley hopes others will not only join in his efforts to honor and remember the sacrifice of the lives that have been lost, but that he can somehow reach young servicemen and women that are experiencing the battle of returning home.
“I’m not a fast runner — I’m not going to win anything,” Conley said. “But we have a lot of kids struggling now. If I run 20,000 miles through all of this, and talk to just one guy, and it saves him, it’s all worth it.”