She Serves

A Sports & Service Interview: Channeling Grief Into Running

Emilee White

Lisa Hallett was only five years old when she first set eyes on her future husband, John. 

Fast forward to 2003 and the two tie the knot before John went on his first deployment to Iraq. For the next six years, John and Lisa built a life around his commitment to the United States Armed Services. In 2009, Lisa was pregnant with their third child when John got orders to be deployed to Afghanistan, and they knew it was going to be tough — it was a year deployment — but Lisa knew they’d get through it. All of that changed only a few weeks later. Sports & Service recently spoke with Hallett about her life, her passion, and how channeling her grief into running helped create her foundation, Wear Blue: Run To Remember. Listen to the full interview and read along below.

*This Q/A section of the interview has been edited for clarity.


I do want to say thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really just appreciate you taking the time to tell me your story.

Thanks. I appreciate it. I'm really, really glad to chat with you today and hopefully share more about Wear Blue so that others can join our community.

Let’s start way back in the beginning when you first met your husband, John. 

Well, I was five. I met my husband, John, in kindergarten. We went to a Catholic school together in Northern California, and he was a couple of years older, a second grader. We just grew up together in the same hometown. 

We were in high school and we went with our youth group to Mexico, and we built homes for those in need. John and I worked together on a house one day and we built seven frames. I'm not sure how great they were. I don't know if our speed maxed our potential, but I really just fell hard for this redhead, and I knew from that trip that John and I were meant to be.

Why did John decide to go to West Point? Why did he decide to pursue a career in the military?

I think like a lot of our service members that this love of country, but it's personal. This love of country is this very broad, abstract term, but love of country is love of your family, it's love of your community, it's love of your neighborhood. And so I think there was this very personal commitment to his community and this idea of giving back. And for him, John really craved I guess the physical challenge, the mental challenge, the emotional challenge, but I think he thrived in this idea of leadership, and the military is leadership. So for him, starting at the academy and moving into a life of service was this opportunity to be challenged while caring for those he loved with an opportunity to lead others. 

When did he commission?

So John graduated from West Point in June of 2001. He graduated in a peacetime military, and months later when he was at basic [training] was when, of course, nine 11 occurred. And all of the service members of our generation, the life of service that we had anticipated really got turned on its head at that moment. And we entered what we would only know during our time of service, which was a military at war.

What was that beginning part of your marriage like? 

I think we were an evolving military family. Look at the construct of our military families; we have working dependents and spouses. When John would tackle a challenge, I would find one of my own. So he deployed and I went to grad school — we were married on Dec. 27, 2003, and then, a few weeks later, Jan. 21, 2004, John deployed to Iraq for a 14-month deployment, and I was in the thick of grad school. That first deployment was almost romantic in the classical sense — I'm sending my loved one to war, I'm writing letters, but there always is an undercurrent of danger and loneliness. And we make the best of our situations. That's what we do as military families because we're going to move, we're going to move often, and we're gonna change friends and careers over and over. We're going to send the people we love most in the world to very, very dangerous situations and sometimes the worst does happen, but in the face of this hardship and adversity, our responsibility and our need so that we can successfully endure is to make the best of the situation. 

So I went to grad school, and I began a career as a teacher. I sent love letters to John overseas and we began our marriage with John deployed to Iraq. For him, of course, there were dangers, um, but he was living in a space where he had an incredible impact —  working, giving back the first elections. It's very meaningful work and not just for the impact that our service members have in the communities in which they're nested, but for this opportunity of influence within the communities of leadership. How am I protecting, guiding, leading, shaping, molding, and supporting these equally heroic and wonderful individuals who have also raised their right hand to serve our country?

That newlywed time with your husband off on a 14-month deployment and you're in grad school. What else did you use to kind of help cope?

Running and writing. I navigated the challenges of a life of service through movement. We would move to a new location and I would sign up for a race, and he'd deploy and I'd sign up for another race, and find a running club. I ran with a group of military spouses; we have hills named and routes secured, and we would sign up for our local races. We were in Hawaii and we ran with the Mid Pacific Road Runners Club, but it was a way for me to channel all those big feelings that I had — the fears, the stress, the loneliness — and really let it out in the steps of a run. This was a skill that I would lean on throughout military service, whether we were PCSing or finding a permanent change of station to a new duty location. When John was on a long or difficult training exercise or deployed, movement was a tool in my toolbox that I pulled out to create a healthy space for me to navigate this time.

Were you always a runner? When did you start getting into running?

I've always enjoyed running as a child. When I was in college, John was at West Point and then he went to ranger school, and I signed up for my first marathon. [Running] was something I've always enjoyed, a part of my DNA, how I'm constructed that I elevated to parallel John's military career. I think that's part of the charm of running, that it is so accessible and it is a tool that we can lean on or different abilities. I think a lot of young service members identify as athletes in high school, but when they join the military, there's not that collegiate athletic experience. With running, you could still harness that athletic prowess and those opportunities and those challenges that exist, that competitive nature. For me, depending on where I'm at, time, ability, and location, running is something I can lean on. And it's cheap.

In August 2009, your husband was tragically killed in the line of duty. Can you tell me about that moment when you first heard and your initial reaction?

Well, John had come back from Iraq and we sat on the beach in Hawaii. It was a very romantic place to contemplate what we were doing with our lives. I think all military families take this in steps to make the decision. “Do I stay in or is now the time to get out?” We sat there and we loved it. We were proud of our service. We were grateful for the people we had met. We loved the adventure, and we made the commitment to stay in, you know, “Let's keep up with the moving and really live and embrace this life of service.” So we sat there and made a choice — we're all in on military life. We went to Fort Bedding, Georgia, we went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and then at our request, we landed [in] Fort Lewis, Washington. We had two children, one on the way, in Washington, I'm pregnant with our third child, and John deployed in July of 2009 to Southern Afghanistan. 

I'm a little bit wiser now to know what a year-deployment means. I remember John leaving for Afghanistan and it was the only time in our marriage that I saw him cry. I think it was just this enormity of him saying goodbye to his children for a year, what we thought was a year. And, I think missing the birth of your child; we knew John wasn't going to be there. So John deployed in July and three weeks later, our daughter Heidi was born. I remember we sent a Red Cross message — I'm so grateful for those messages — and then a few days later, I'm home, I've got three children under three years old, I'm nursing Heidi, and John calls. I'm quickly feeding the baby so that I don't miss a word he is going to say, and he says, “I've never heard the baby cry,” and I said, “Don't worry, you have a lifetime for that.”

The unit pushes out at that point and they go beyond the wire. I don't know what the phrase is, but we lose connectivity so we don't talk at this point. Heidi was born on Aug. 2 and I think the last time I talked to John was on Aug. 5, and then about two weeks later, we were notified of the first two casualties of the deployment. Some of our dear friends were seriously injured, and it’s this awakening that we realized that this is not the deployment that we thought it was going to be. The week that ensued was probably the most terrifying week of my life. I knew my husband was a warrior, but I just couldn't understand how my husband was going to carry the weight of this loss. Then a week later, I went to a military meeting. At this point, we as a community are processing what we realize is now a very dangerous deployment. I'm committed to getting more involved with the unit. 

We went to this meeting, and I remember I felt really good about myself because I was not wearing maternity clothes. They were very stretchy, but they were normal clothes, and I felt so good. And I sit up in the front row of the classroom. John had wanted me to get involved, so I sat down and spread out my notebooks, my papers, and my pens when the rear detachment commander tapped me on the shoulder. [He had] actually been one of John's soldiers, Frankie, so I was pretty flippant. I was like, “Hey, what's going on?” And he was less so, and I remember Frankie saying, “Lisa, you need to come with me.”

And there’s this pause. And he says, “You should bring your stuff with you.” I remember I picked up the papers and I put them in the bag, and I picked up Heidi and her little car seat. I remember following Frankie across the brigade parade field, and we had this incredible loss the week before and it doesn't occur to me that this loss is about to become mine. I'm worried John is injured, John needs his wife to tuck him through this difficult moment, so I almost demand Frankie to tell me John's okay. But Frankie is passive and he takes me to the battalion classroom. There were two gentlemen and they're wearing their class A's, the green business suit, and they're waiting for me. I remember the gentleman on the right, he was holding a white piece of paper, and he reads it. He said, “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband, Captain John Hallett, is believed to have perished in the fires.” They said believed. I just kept coming back to the fact that I had a three-year-old, a one-year-old, and this brand new baby who my husband had never met, let alone hear cry. They just had to be wrong.

John was killed on Aug. 25, 2009, with three other soldiers. It was Captain Corey Jenkins, Sergeant First Class Ronald Sawyer, and Specialist Dennis Williams. They had just delivered medicine to a village with a Cholera outbreak. You cannot send someone you love to war and think that the worst will happen. And all of a sudden this terrible thing that happened to other people was happening to us. Our world was flipped upside down.

What was the first thing that you said or did when you first heard that news?

When I was notified that John was killed, I put my baby in the car and we drove home. I think at one point, I called friends, and I said John was killed. We had our daddy wall — I had covered the garage door with pictures of John because I wanted my kids to know their dad — and I just sat in front of the daddy wall and I cried. I was 28 years old. I had two children in diapers and I had to figure out how I was going to bury my husband. Where was I going to bury him? What was this going to look like? What were our funeral services? When's my husband going to come home from Afghanistan? And it's days away from my son's birthday so we can't bury dad on [his] second birthday. I remember calling my friend Carrie and I said, “I need to run.” This is how I deal with my feelings. I need to run. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it felt so cruel that the world would be so beautiful when my heart felt so broken. I can still remember the glare of the sun as I tied my shoes on the curb in front of her house. We ran and I moved. I had just had a baby. It wasn't pretty, but it was the first time I felt, I grieved, and I connected with this surrealness. 

Running is tangible. You feel your breath, your step, the movement, and it came in parallel with my feelings. I sorted, I cried, I grieved, I moved, and that's where it began. We lost 41 soldiers throughout that deployment and as a community, we were struggling with the weight of sacrifice that my family knew. We came together in these weekly runs. We knew it was powerful. The first time we met in the Burger King parking lot and said to wear your spouses’ blue physical training shirts. So we wore those shirts, we identified ourselves as a community, and we ran around the airfield. We didn't know what we had, but we knew we had something. We came back the following week, but this time we spoke the names of those soldiers who were not going to come home from that deployment. We gave voice to their stories, their names, and we carried them in our steps. If only for that run, they lived in how we lived. So that is where Wear Blue: Run to Remember began. We trained for and completed the Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon that June, we lined a one-mile stretch of the course with American flags in honor of each of those heroes, and I think on that race day, 25,000 runners remembered with us when their steps joined ours through that tribute Wear Blue Mile. 

Weeks later, we saw that those soldiers needed it too, we all needed the space to heal, to grieve, to remember, and we just didn't have words big enough after that deployment. How do you say, I'm sorry, you lost your leader, your friend, your spouse, your parents? But in these weekly runs, we didn't have to have the right words. Our presence was our solidarity, our understanding, our respect, our gratitude, and our remembrance. These runs became the common footing for how we moved forward from that deployment with our remembrance and through our feelings.

Is that the background of how Wear Blue was born?

Exactly, those are the first steps of Wear Blue. It mattered and it was needed. Yeah. There are incredible organizations out there for which I have found incredible strength and opportunity for my family, but when it comes to community, I needed a place that I could stand as a survivor and as a military family. Before I was a Gold Star spouse, I was a Blue Star spouse, and I needed to belong among my military families. I think our military families and our veteran families needed to see me and my children, and know that we are healthy, happy, and moving forward and that they too have the permission in the place to be healthy, happy, and moving forward in union with one another. 

People learned about Wear Blue and they would take it with them. We have this incredible military spouse who was moving to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, knew her husband was going to deploy, and she said, “I'm a runner and I can do this.” She started up our very first community outside of Fort Lewis, Washington. Then you saw these second and third orders, the power of movement, the power of community, and the power of remembrance to navigate the challenges of a life of service. And that is where Wear Blue: Run to Remember was born.

In regards to your children, how do you continue to keep their father alive in their lives each day?

In a lot of ways, John was so abstract when they were little. They knew Mom; I only worked part-time so I was the primary caregiver if you will. Then he left and just didn't come home. So when they were little, I had the space to grieve and heal on my own. As they've gotten older, they're so curious to know who their dad was and how they're like him. Wear Blue has been this really incredible place where my children know their father because knowing their father is knowing a life of service. One of the programs is our Gold Star Youth Mentorship program. We pair children of fallen military with currently serving members of our armed forces, or recently separated veterans in this run-focused mentorship. Every Saturday, my kids run with a military mentor, and they get to see that love of country, that commitment to your fellow service members, the ethos that drives these incredible volunteers who raise their right hands to serve. That's knowing their dad. 

John was good. John was a really good human being and he always chose the hard right over the easy wrong. He lived with just such congeniality and kindness and goodness that wasn't complicated for John. You do the right thing in all things. It's trying to model those values and ethos in a world that is cluttered with distractions, so we try to live with his values. 

I am acutely aware of how condensed John's time on earth was. He was 30 years old when he was killed. And there are so many sunrises he missed, and mountains he didn't climb so with our kids, I try to live in a way that embraces every moment. When John was killed, somebody asked, “How did you do it? How did you get up and raise those three kids?” People like to answer the question on their own. They’ll say, “Well, I guess you just had to. You did what you had to do,” and they're wrong. Every step, every breath, everything is a choice. I didn't have to do anything, but I chose to. There's another mountain I want to climb, another sunrise I want to see, and there is more to do. We have been gifted this incredible gift of life. And I think we know John by celebrating and being grateful for the incredible beauty that is around us.

What's next for Wear Blue?

We have been laying the foundation to do the work that is so needed right now. We have a veteran community of about 44 million. We have 1,800,000 men and women who still wear the uniform — active duty, reservists, guardsmen, and women. We’ve had over 7,000 service members give their lives since 9/11, and we've lost over 33,000 service members since 9/11 to deaths by suicide. Wear Blue is the place that supports those impacted by the loss of a service member. When we say, “Never forget,” this is what it looks like. It's speaking the names, it's learning their stories, and making the choice to live inspired by their lives.

Since our inception, almost 2 million people have joined one of these tribute miles, modeled after that first run in Seattle, with their steps as a volunteer. Not every American is going to our Queen of Heaven Catholic cemetery in Lafayette, California and visiting John. Most Americans can't go to Arlington National Cemetery. But these tribute Wear Blue Miles are a chance for our communities to show their gratitude and their remembrance for those who've made the ultimate sacrifice in the very communities that these men and women raise their right hands to protect and defend.

Thank you so much for telling me everything. I really do appreciate you telling me all of this and opening up and sharing your story the way that you did.

Oh, thanks. I'm so proud of this community of people who join us and choose to live inspired. And I think about this a lot. Every day is a choice. And are we going to live inspired? Are we going to live broken? With this level of tragedy, it'd be so easy and so reasonable to be broken by the sacrifice, but at Wear Blue, I see people who make the choice to live inspired by the light of the lives that they honor and remember. For me, to have this opportunity to bear witness to these incredible human beings is deeply motivating, is deeply inspiring, and this is the foundation of what makes America such an incredible place to be and to live and to know.

So how can people get involved with Wear Blue?

We all need community more than ever today. We always say at Wear Blue to run, honor, and belong. So Wear Blue is open to all and never at any cost to participate. I'd invite the community to find a Saturday Run near you or one of our Wear Blue miles. If you don't have a race or Saturday Run community, simply visit our website, wearblueruntormember.org, purchase a blue shirt, and the next time you step out the door, make your steps purposeful and honor the service and sacrifice of the American military.

When you first started running, and as time has gone on, you've turned to it for support and you've turned to it for grief. How has your relationship with running evolved over time through different phases of your life?

Oh, I love that question. Running can adapt with us. Are we training for a fast 5k? Are we taking it long and slow? In the beginning, running was where I could be really honest with my grief, to be honest. Grief was scary for my kids. I remember Jackson saying, “Mommy, stop crying. You're scaring me.” So I could go for a long run, feel my big feelings, and come home and be the mom that my three young children really needed me to be. Running is still a place where I feel my big feelings. And sometimes, and now more often than not, it's feelings of joy, excitement, anticipation, but it's still the place where I can intentionally remember John. It's still the place where I challenge myself. And in the beginning, it was such a journey of grief, and now in a lot of ways, it's a celebration of life.

Every year on the anniversary of John's passing, the children and I try to do something big and scary in his honor. So one year we hiked the Grand Canyon. On the 10-year anniversary of John's passing, I ran my first 100-mile race. This year, for the anniversary of John's passing, I ran the Leadville 100, a 100-mile foot race at over 10,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. For me, running this race was just such a powerful reminder that there is a beautiful earth out there that is meant to be seen, touched, and explored. I pay tribute to John, and I pay tribute to me and my potential by embracing the possibility of what is out there. Every time I get out and run, I seek to define the moment rather than be defined by the moment and to live to this potential that John made the sacrifice for me to know.

If you were given the chance one last opportunity to see and speak to John, what would you say to him?

That's a hard question. Over time, when we lose people, it's almost as if they become transparent, right? We see these outlines and these sketchings and they're ideas of them. And when I really talked to John to add the opacity back to him, it's not the idea of John, but this real person. And it's very sad and scary to miss that real person. I remember at the first memorial service after John died, somebody asked that same question and I said I want him to know that the kids spilled the Fruit Loops and that we miss him. But it's not complicated. When you love somebody, it's sharing your life with them. And it's not the big over-the-top moments — it's the quiet behind the scenes. And so if I saw John again, I'd want him to know that we have the three very best children in the world who are smart, but more importantly, they are kind. And he has a list a mile long of chores that he owes me, including potty training our children and teaching them to drive, but I am so sorry that he missed so much because our family is so very precious and, we love him and we miss him.

Thank you so much, Lisa. I truly appreciate everything — your time, everything you told me, and just being open with me. I truly appreciate it.

Thanks, Emilee. Thanks for being so gentle with me and so caring about sharing our story.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Lisa Hallett, Ingrid Barrentine