George Chmiel finishes his cross-country journey at Grand Zero on Jan. 24. (Photo by Zandy Mangold @Run_n_Shoot)
By Tracy Fuga
On the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, extreme athlete George Chmiel began a 3,000 mile cross-country run from San Diego and finished on Jan. 24 at Ground Zero in New York City. Hundreds of runners accompanied Chmiel as he started his run from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum.
Chmiel started off on a quest to complete the cross-country run in 60 days but was slowed by early injuries to his knee, followed the next day by a partial tear to his Achilles tendon. Chmiel and his team of patriots kept going — albeit much slower — in their mission to honor veterans and raise awareness of the serious issues they face upon returning home from the battlefield.
The injuries allowed Chmiel to take his time, meeting more people along the way and spreading the message that sparked him to run in the first place.
Chmiel said once his timetable went out the window, the run evolved into something new. He took his time and stopped to talk to people about veterans’ issues one-on-one or in small groups, while still doing the fundraisers that had been planned along the route. He was invited to the White House on Veterans Day to talk about the issue with then-President Barack Obama along with the president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“The fact it took four months instead of two months, the fact we finished later, I think things happen for a reason,” Chmiel said. “I think it worked out for the best.”
George Chmiel hugs him mother (left) and crosses the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan during the final day of his run. (Photos by Zandy Mangold @Run_n_Shoot)
He had hoped to raise $1 million along the way for the Guardian for Heroes Foundation (a nonprofit founded by the late Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” fame) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, but will probably come in between $300,000 and $400,000.
Guardian for Heroes helps combat veterans navigate physical, mental and emotional struggles through physical fitness. The organization has generated significant interest in its mission through the BeastMode for the Brave challenge — an initiative to raise funds and increase awareness of veteran issues by using one’s skills, talents and passions. Chmiel also ran to raise awareness and money for the fight against the epidemic of suicides — estimated at about 20 per day — by military veterans.
“We need to do a much better job of taking care of our vets,” Chmiel said. “It’s a disgrace the lack of support they receive when they return home from the battlefield. These are our warriors, the protectors and providers of our freedom. Their sacrifices allow us the opportunity to live freely, without fear, and chase our dreams every single day. We need to do a much better job of educating ourselves on the challenges they face on the post-war front. The 22 number is real. Their depression is real. We civilians can all do more to assist. It’s not about talk, it’s about action. Living in the United States is a gift. We have our military heroes to thank. For that I owe. This is my tribute to our vets. This is my BeastMode for the Brave.”
Getting to know people who’d lost loved ones to suicide steeled his resolve, he said. Even through a third injury, this time to his ankle, he kept running. Troops don’t have an “eject button” from strife, he said, so he wouldn’t allow himself one either.
“It was incredible, so powerful,” he said. “It didn’t really feel like I was ending the run. It just felt like I was part of this magnificent celebration of our veterans and the unity in this country that we need so badly right now. It was amazing.”
During his 3,000-mile journey, Chmiel passed through many national and historical landmarks. Most notable were Kyle’s hometown in Midlothian, Texas, and The Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The journey concluded with an emotional tribute with new and old friends at Ground Zero.