Funds benefit active Marines, veterans
Near the 29th obstacle of Saturday’s USMC Ultimate Challenge Mud Run, 20 people were lying in the mud.
A Marine stood over them shouting instructions.
First, push-ups. Next, flutter kicks on their backs. The exercise was a penalty for failing to complete the Tarzan, an obstacle where a series of ropes is used to swing over a pit of water.
Any difference in the color of their clothing or their hair was obscured long ago by a layer of dirt.
After the runners completed their drills, the Marine hollered at them to repeat: “I paid to do this.”
More than 5,000 runners competed in teams of four in the Mud Run, completing a 6.2-mile run designed by a former Marine drill instructor.
“Marines always take pride in stretching ourselves,” said Chuck Paxton, the president of the Greater Columbia Marine Foundation. “Pain is weakness leaving the body, and much pain is much good.”
The twice-annual Mud Run is the biggest fundraiser for the foundation and its goal is to improve the lives of active and retired Marines in the Midlands.
“We believe in the cause here,” Paxton said. “Marines take care of Marines.”
‘You worry about what could happen’
When Paxton was 17, as he was trying to decide which branch of the military to join, he went to the Marines and asked them what they had to offer. Other branches had tried to appeal to him by describing the benefits they could give.
“[The Marine Corps] said, ‘Absolutely nothing. We don’t even know if you can be a part of us,’” Paxton said.
Paxton took that as a challenge and started a 32-year career that included combat in Operation Desert Storm. One of the most difficult moments he recalled was training at the Jungle Warfare Training Camp in Okinawa, Japan, an 11,500-acre facility used to train Marines in jungle warfare.
There, Paxton and 200 other Marines competed on a course similar to the Mud Run, taking an 11-person team through mountains and rivers.
“I thought I was about to die,” he said.
Bill Toomey, the Mud Run’s director, joined the Marine Corps because he wanted to serve his country when he got out of high school. Over the course of 22 years, he served tours in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where he deployed after 9/11.
Paxton recalled being told before Operation Desert Storm that 80 percent of the combat forces weren’t expected to return. He had vivid memories of picking up leaflets, which advised the Iraqi armed forces to surrender, on the battlefield the morning of Feb. 24, 1991.
Toomey exhaled sharply and recalled what he was thinking before he went to war.
“There’s a lot of different things,” he said. “You worry about your family. You worry about what could happen, and you worry about taking care of the guys to your left and your right.”
‘We’ll stop by and pay his bills’
Matthew Mcardle, a junior at White Knoll High School, moved to South Carolina from Connecticut in November of his freshman year and joined a junior ROTC program as a sophomore.
The program, which he called his “favorite thing to do” in school, has prompted him to get involved around the Columbia community and has helped him make friends he referred to as his brothers and sisters.
“What you basically see (from ROTC cadets) is them coming out of their shell and really becoming part of a team,” said 1st Sgt. David Pelley, a naval science instructor. “It’s a great working organization.”
White Knoll’s ROTC program is one of several that receive scholarship funds from the Greater Columbia Marine Foundation. Pelley said the program does not seek to recruit students for any branch of the military, but those who participate for at least three semesters and enlist are promoted to a higher rank after boot camp.
Of the Mud Run’s entry fees, 10 percent goes to rent the cattle farm where the race is held.
A $10,000 grant also goes to Columbia Opportunity Resource, an organization that works with students and young professionals. COR has been a partner of the Mud Run since fall 2010 and provided about 500 volunteers to work Saturday’s event. The organization stresses service, leadership and fun for its members. Its regular events include a dinner series called Table for Six, in which five of its members have dinner and network with a business executive.
The majority of the proceeds from the race go to the Marine Foundation, which assists Marines and veterans from other military branches to connect with one another, readjust to civilian life after deployment or even make ends meet.
“We try to keep an emergency fund, because sometimes just guys that have been out of the Marine Corps for three months (call and say), ‘I just lost my job, and I can’t pay my heat, electric or buy diapers,’” said Maj. William Hefty, an active Marine and foundation board member. “We’ll stop by and pay his bills and get him some diapers.”
‘Bigger all the time’
When the first Mud Run was held in 1993, about 50 runners raced at the USMC Reserve Center near Fort Jackson. The event has grown gradually to attract more competitive runners and spectators.
“We haven’t been aggressive about it. We’ve just tried to give a very quality product and take care of our customers,” Paxton said.
Earlier this month, the Mud Run was established as its own entity with a board of directors separate from the Greater Columbia Marine Foundation. Hefty said the Foundation no longer had the expertise to help the race grow.
Toomey has been the director of the race for three years, and it has operated independently throughout that time. He called the separation “just a paperwork thing” but said the race would benefit from attracting a larger audience. The foundation will still be its primary beneficiary.
In the near future, the foundation’s goals include establishing a full-ride scholarship to USC or The Citadel. In the long term, it hopes to build a veterans’ home in Columbia, although it is nowhere close to having enough money to open one.
It’s also recently funded a home remodeling for Mary Davis, the widow of a World War II veteran. It spent $17,000 to install a wheelchair ramp and remove lead paint and mold, among other improvements.
Hefty said the foundation hopes to continue funding similar projects to expand the impact it has in the community.
“We are now looking bigger and bigger and bigger all the time,” Hefty said. “I think it’s just a matter of time. We’ll get as big as we’d like to.”
‘Should’ve run a 5K’
The group of muddy runners repeated after the Marine: “I paid to do this.”
“Should’ve run a 5K,” he responded.
Racers stood up with varying degrees of difficulty and continued down the course.
Volunteers from the junior ROTC cheered them on through their last obstacles. After running the race earlier in the morning, 34 cadets worked throughout the afternoon.
Pelley said participating in the race helped them learn the value of teamwork. The former drill instructor still wears his Marine uniform and is still addressed by his official title, as though he is still on active duty.
“Now I get an opportunity to make a difference in kids’ lives without having them go into the Marine Corps,” Pelley said.
Junior ROTC cadets are encouraged to go to college before enlisting, but Pelley said he tries to guide them based on the skills they hope to attain.
Mcardle’s father and uncle were also in the Marine Corps, and he said he may follow in their footsteps.
“I would be really proud of being a Marine,” Mcardle said. “I would be able to contribute a lot.”
This fall, the Mud Run will return Oct. 12, and “enlistment” will begin in May for teams of four. Paxton expects 7,000 runners will come out for the race.
As mud-coated competitors swarmed near the registration area, Toomey was calm. The last team had started the course. He said his job is the second-best in the world — after being a Marine.
“This is the perfect job after that — to be able to come out here, expose the general public … to what it is to be a Marine, and to be able to give back to my fellow Marines and other veterans and their families,” Toomey said. “I couldn’t think of anything more rewarding in the world to do.”