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A Marine Major, Running Fool, and All-Around Smart-Ass.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

'Peaceful' Runs Help Vet, 60, Get Past Iraq

This is very cool. Thanks Lily for sending it to me:

After serving in Vietnam and Iraq, a Deerfield Beach sexagenarian is ready for the challenge of the inaugural A1A Marathon.

BY ASHLEY FANTZ afantz@MiamiHerald.com

When Clarence Kugler went out for a run in Baghdad, he always carried a handful of sharp rocks to keep the wild dogs away.

A hulking former Army sergeant who made a civilian hobby of running ultra-marathons -- up to 100 miles -- as well as Ironman and triathlon competitions, the 60-year-old from Deerfield Beach was the oldest soldier to have been stationed in Iraq.

He wasn't about to let deployment in the world's most dangerous place spoil his workout then. And now, back in Broward, Kugler will be among thousands expected to run Sunday in the inaugural A1A Marathon.

The beach run will be a breeze after Baghdad, where his carefully chosen six-mile daily training routes took him through the American-controlled Green Zone, a place of relative safety -- except for the occasional fireworks.

''There's nothing like hearing mortar fire to make you pick up the pace!'' Kugler said.

Just weeks after the 478th arrived in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded outside Assassin's Gate at the Green Zone entrance, killing 10 Iraqis and wounding 30.

''Troops from our unit had to go out and pick up body parts,'' said Kugler, who was a mile from the explosion.

''It was a very tough experience that made you realize no place was really safe,'' he added.

Kugler returned more than a year ago from a two-year tour with the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion. His morning runs are calmer now. Instead of a barbed-wire blast wall, he's flanked by his jogging partner, a wheaten terrier named Marley. They rise at 5 a.m. and set out from their Deerfield Beach home on training runs for Sunday's race. He'll be running the half-marathon -- his third in three months.

The race begins on Southeast 17th Street, heads east to A1A, then north along the ocean. Half-marathoners will turn around at 36th Street. Those running the full course will continue to the Hillsboro Inlet bridge in Pompano Beach before heading south.

It's a nearly flat course, on which a decent time qualifies a runner for the Boston Marathon.

Kugler is a Vietnam veteran who joined the Army Reserves in his mid-40s to earn some extra cash so his wife Ali could go back to school.

''I was 58 when I got the activation orders -- two years, destination unknown,'' he recalled. ``That was a big swallow.''

Kugler became the oldest enlisted soldier to serve in Iraq, earning the nickname ``Old School.''

In Baghdad, Kugler ran as often as possible, cherishing that single hour in the day that was his alone. Some days, it was safer to swim laps in Saddam's palace pool or bike along the Tigris River.

During the unforgiving summer of 2004, another runner -- an Army Captain -- staged Baghdad's first marathon. Kugler signed up along with a few others, for the 26.2-mile loop around the Green Zone in 89-degree heat.

Military officials refused to sanction the race, considering it too dangerous, but bib numbers and T-shirts were printed anyway. Trophies were crafted out of broken pieces of marble and granite from a bombed-out building. Armed volunteers handed out water.

Kugler was one of 10 who finished.

He unfolds a wrinkled Baghdad Marathon T-shirt from a box that holds race mementos: a lei from the two Ironmans in Kona, Hawaii; a brass belt buckle from an ultra marathon; and a photo album with a shot of Kugler smiling next to the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein, his finger up the former dictator's nose.

Kugler had returned from Vietnam a smoker, barely able to run a mile. He laid off the cigarettes and hit the track, working his way up to marathons, triathlons, and then ultra-distance events like 50-mile races.

For ''fun,'' Kugler finished the treacherous 1984 Liberty to Liberty Triathlon. It began at Manhattan's Liberty State Park and ended at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell, via a very nasty swim through the Hudson River.

Three years later, he tackled the Western States, a 100-mile trail run in California endured by only a few dozen athletes. His time: 29 hours, 17 minutes.

Throughout his 50s, he completed more triathlons and marathons than he can remember. But was he ready for war?

''Surely, I thought, they wouldn't drop a guy my age out of a plane,'' he said.

After a short stint in Hungary in early 2003, he was sent to Baghdad.

''I thought it would be Peace Corps type stuff,'' he recalled. ``We'd be well-received, eating native food, running around.''

But it wasn't like that.

His battalion fixed sewers, installed electrical lines, kept the water running, and tried to mend sore feelings. Kugler spent his first six months helping Iraqi civilians locate lost relatives, many of whom had been jailed. The work earned him a citation from Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

But like many Iraq vets, Kugler had a tough transition to normal life. Driving on Interstate 95 reminded him of driving in Iraq. He couldn't sleep. He didn't want to leave the house.

Now retired from the Army, Kugler gets medical treatment and counseling at a veterans' clinic. His family says he's returning to his old self.

One sure sign is his promise to get back into ultra-marathoning after his 61st birthday this month.

''Peaceful, stress-free runs . . . ,'' he said. ``Perfect.''

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3 Comments:

  • At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Lily said…

    Did you know that Fredericksburg is where the amazing USMC combat artist, Michael Fay, lives? His blog, which I just saw for the first time the other day, is http://www.mdfay.blogspot.com/, and apparently he just returned from Iraq. So there's a brush with greatness, in Fredericksburg!

     
  • At 2:35 PM, Blogger Viper said…

    I didn't know this. He must be stationed at Quantico.

     
  • At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Lily said…

    I think he lives in Fredericksburg only, don't know where he's stationed. There was an article about him on page B1 of the WSJ today, by one of the reporters who was embedded in Iraq when he was. Nice article.

     

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