POCONO, Pennsylvania — On Sunday Valerie Waters marked her first Mother’s Day since losing her son Jimmy to an IED in Kandahar. He was 21 at the time, July 2011. Her husband Garry Waters, 54, is standing beside her caked in dirt. He’s just completed the 12-mile “Tough Mudder” obstacle course that raises money for wounded veterans.
Fifteen-year-old Joe, the youngest of their five, is laughing nearby with equally filthy Infantrymen from the 10th Mountain Division’s “Dog Company,” his brother’s old unit. In March, Dog Co. returned to Ft. Drum, New York, from southern Afghanistan. Last weekend more than 60 of them carpooled with a pack of wives, friends, and family to run the course in tribute to Waters and their other dead and injured.
“It shows how much of a family they’ve become,” smiles Mrs. Waters, as she watches for the rest of “Team H2O” to cross the charged wires guarding the finish line.
Since Jimmy was killed, the family and Dog Co. have joined clans, keeping in touch via Facebook and care package for the rest of the deployment. “I know it was hard,” says Mrs. Waters, a petite blonde in an oversized Team H2O shirt. At first, “we didn’t know what to say to them, they didn’t know what to say to us. But being in contact helped us more than they probably know.”
“For them to do this, it’s a real honor,” adds Mr. Waters, pulling mud from his moustache. His wife jumps and starts hollering; she’s spotted more emerging H20ers, whose day included greased and inclined monkey bars, rock-crawls under barbed wire, a slog through ice water and a few more electro-shocks. The course, designed by British Special Forces, stipulates no “winners” — only finishers. Since launching in 2010 as one of the more profitable brands of military-style mud-runs, the events have been attended by more than half a million “Mudders” world-wide. They pay $90-$200 and must pledge not to “whine” for the privilege.
Their rewards: a bragging-rights headband and one free beer — though not for the underage likes of Andy Waters, now also sprinting into eyeshot. The 18-year-old Waters son completed Army Basic last year and in June will begin advanced Infantry training. His brother Tony, 23, is currently deployed near the Pakistan border. Their only sister, Jennifer, is a mother herself and was unable to join on the family’s 12-hour drive from central Indiana.
The H2O cheering section also includes 22-year-old Sam Dilberian, whose brother Bryan lost both legs and an arm in the same attack that took Waters. “As soon as I heard about it I wanted to come,” grins Miss Dilberian later over a celebratory team dinner. The brunette Brooklynite has spent most of her last year in Maryland at Walter Reed with her brother, who couldn’t make the messy reunion; he’s been busy. “Physical therapy, social workers, everything — you name it, he has to go through it,” says his sister.
Then there’s the “easy life” aspect of recuperation, which Spc. Chang Lee explains with a grimace. He notes an early memory after waking up at Walter Reed, having taken two bullets to the chest and one to his arm when Dog Co. was ambushed last June: “Someone handing me a big tub of Ben & Jerry’s.” The 22-year-old Minnesotan shakes his head. “Free stuff and bureaucrats. It was a really eerie feeling. I was holding my breath the whole time. I didn’t want to see my friends show up.”
Surrounded by them now, Spc. Lee says “it feels like no time has passed.” Pfc. Seth Pack of Utah, aged 20 and missing a leg, nods. Neither is through yet with their recoveries but are already working on post-Army school plans. For the moment, “It’s just really good to be here and to see them all,” says Pfc. Pack.
Ditto for “them,” who used Mudder prep as a mental escape from the remainder of their tour. Sgt. Elliott Quinones, 25 of New Jersey, found it wasn’t hard to talk most of his platoon (and, it turned out, your correspondent) into the challenge. “I don’t think there’s a day that went by that we didn’t talk about it,” he says of their final months in-country. A shrug: “It is that bad over there.”
And as Miss Dilberian notes, there’s nothing particularly unique about their group. “Before my brother got hurt, I was pretty naïve.” Then she made her first trip to Walter Reed. “You see so many-hundreds, all right there — so many boys that got hurt.”
She stops and nods shortly, displaying the rules that apply to all service-members and their families: No complaining, move forward together. Before the post-party progresses beyond printable fare, Spc. Lee puts it simply: “I fight for the U.S. I’ll pass on the whining.”