FORT MEADE, Md. – When retired Army Reserve Col. Chris Wilson collapsed just 2.6 miles from a marathon finish line on Sept. 8, his death shook a small community in Wichita, Kansas, then rippled across the nation.
He was known for being an avid runner, a rock climber, a mentor, a coach and lover of God and country – serving his local community as a police officer and a veteran with 33 years of military service.
Wilson was a member of Start2Finish, a running group headquartered at the Wichita running store, Fleet Feet. To honor Wilson, the group organized a 2.6-mile pub walk at a local brewery, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 13.
Karlee Martinez, a Fleet Feet associate, was in charge of organizing group runs in their community.
“Chris came to every pub run, so it seemed fitting that we would honor him by finishing his 2.6 miles on a pub walk,” said Martinez. “I just made the event on Facebook, but once word got out, people started sharing it like crazy, and it became much bigger than our running group.”
Because of the overwhelming response to the event, Fleet Feet had to move the location to the Sedgwick County Park. Along with Start2Finish running group, members of his church, the military, local police departments and Wilson’s family took part in the walk.
First across the finish line was his wife, Sherry, and one of his daughters, Natalie, who received a very special gift.
There were only three people in the Wichita area who finished the marathon that Saturday when Wilson died. Martinez was able to track down all three of them in hopes of getting just one medal to donate to Wilson’s wife. With willing hearts, the three runners gave up their medals, one for his wife and the other two were given to his daughters’ Natalie and Haylee.
The support didn’t stop there.
Command Sgt. Maj. Kerry Hommertzheim volunteered as the family’s casualty assistance officer. Wilson was Hommertzheim’s first commander, and he’s been with the family every day since Wilson’s passing.
Hommertzheim, from Garden Plain, Kansas, is the command sergeant major for the 530th Military Police Battalion in Elkhorn, Nebraska.
“I know Sherry was so nervous before the ceremony because she wasn’t ready to face Chris’ friends and the reality of the situation,” Hommertzhiem said. “But as we pulled up, she started to cry from overwhelming happiness from the all the cars in the parking lot and signs people made for Col. Wilson. As a command sergeant major, I’m supposed to be strong, but when I saw all the people, I couldn’t help my chin from quivering.”
More than 200 people showed up to honor Wilson and support his family.
“I’ll tell you what’s really neat,” said Hommertzheim, “The virtual runners who checked in, who couldn’t be there in person.”
All of a sudden, runner started posting screenshots of their running apps on social media, showing a finished run of 2.6 miles with the hashtag #flystrong1082.
The number "1082" was Wilson’s bib during the marathon.
The hashtag popped up from all over the country: Kansas, Nebraska, California, Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Illinois ... One runner even posted a map of her 2.6-mile course from Spain.
It all seemed surreal to Wilson’s wife. She wasn’t sure how she was going to get through the upcoming days or through the actual memorial, which is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 17.
“I’m just overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community,” said Wilson’s wife. “Knowing that he touched so many lives, and how many people loved him so much lets me know I’m not doing this alone.”