Marine Planned Marathon as Va. Homecoming But Tragedy Brought New Meaning

WASHINGTON — After 20 years in the Marines, John Chenoweth figured he’d make the Marine Corps Marathon his last hurrah before retirement.

He grew up in Springfield, Virginia, before starting his military career, and since he liked running, he figured he would cap off his career by participating in his hometown race. He might even have a small, “unofficial” retirement ceremony after crossing the finish line, and then move on with the rest of his life.

“It’s a coming home of sorts for me,” Chenoweth said. He got the idea to run back in the spring, at the suggestion of his commanding officer.

“I was on a flight with one of the commanding officers in my unit,” he said. “He was telling me how he had run the Marine Corps Marathon in the past and kind of chided me into doing it as one of the last things I did in the Marine Corps.”

“We both signed up on the spot right there.”

The timing of the race was almost too perfect. Chenoweth had been spending the last couple of weeks moving back to Virginia from the military base he’s been stationed at in upstate New York. And while his official retirement ceremony was this month, Chenoweth said his Northern Virginia roots were equally a factor in his decision to run.

“I actually used to work at [the old] Pentagon City Hospital,” he said. “I would say there’s more of a local connection to it for me than anything else. I think it’s just an added bonus that it happens to be the Marine Corps, and I’m in the Marine Corps.”

John Chenoweth poses with U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Charles Bland at inauguration. (Courtesy John Chenoweth)

His family has already bought their home in Leesburg, and his son started his junior year at Tuscarora High School as Chenoweth finished up his service. In fact, the return home was more at his son’s urging than anything, as part of a desire to be closer to family.

Running the marathon is one of the first things Chenoweth will be doing as a Virginia resident again. “It was originally just going to be ‘this is my last hurrah in the Marine Corps and I’m coming home,’ and it’s a nice way to welcome myself home and a nice way to close out my Marine Corps story.”

“But on July 10, my unit had a very tragic incident where we lost nine of our fellow squadron members and 16 from the Marine Corps family overall,” he said.

That was the day a military cargo jet crashed in northern Mississippi. Reporters and witnesses recalled seeing smoke and fire filling up the soybean field where the plane crashed. Debris was found 5 miles away from the crash site, and some of the bodies were discovered more than a mile away.

Life, and especially training for this race, was put on hold.

“Unfortunately, that kind of took precedent for about eight weeks while we worked through the processes and went to a lot of funerals and a lot of wakes and meetings with families,” Chenoweth said. “Our unit came together very, very closely, very, very tight. We traveled all over the country from New York to Texas to Seattle.”

Witnesses reported seeing the plane break up in midair while carrying special operations troops from North Carolina to Arizona. The crash prompted the military to ground other planes in that fleet while the investigation continued.

So, when Chenoweth approaches the starting line this month, he’s no longer running this race for himself.

Intent on honoring his friends who were on board, Chenoweth said he’ll be wearing at least one of two specially made bracelets, “one with all of the crew members’ names from the incident and one from the gentleman who was in my specific job. I have both of those bracelets. I haven’t decided which one I’ll wear. I’ll wear one of them.”

The weather on race day will also determine what he’ll be wearing. He’ll either wear a T-shirt that has everybody’s names and his squadron’s logo on it or an identical hooded sweatshirt.

“That was my unit and my squadron, and my good friends,” Chenoweth said. “So I’ll be running for them.”

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