Students honor victims of 9/11 in early morning 5K run

At 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday, more than 300 students stood in silence around the American flag at half-staff. While the rest of their peers slept through the sound of crickets and early bird songs, they heard the snap of twigs beneath shifting feet as they attempted to warm themselves in the brisk chill of the darkness.

“This is what you came for. This is why you’re here,” Gunnery Sgt. Michael Hnyla said. “Because in November and December of 2001 … it was people like you that were there leading others.”

The assistant Marine officer instructor’s voice echoed through the silence as all four branches of ROTC stood at attention outside the Armory.

Lined up and distinguished by their designated physical training gear, representatives from each battalion carried flags — something that Capt. Kim Byrd, Marine officer instructor and assistant professor of naval science, called an “absolute honor and a privilege.”

The commanding officers called out orders until every person was in place ready to run, and after a quick shoelace check, they took off into the blackness as invigorating shouts of cadences boomed in a unified, male-dominated voice.

For 2.7 miles, the group of ROTC students, commanders, road guards in reflective orange vests, and various other student participants crossed campus, maintaining their strict formation and synchronized calls.

“It’s definitely uplifting; Whenever you do physical training together, whenever you get together as a military unit, the camaraderie is there. You hear the cadence, have the flags, and it’s just very motivating,” Byrd said.

The ROTC program has done this commemorative run for several years, but it was just last year that Veterans Affairs teamed up with ROTC to increase participation, said Nicholas Osborne, Coast Guard veteran and Veteran Student Services coordinator.

The event is also open to any students or student groups that want to participate, though the majority of runners were those who are more accustomed to waking up early for physical training.

Even ROTC students admitted, however, that they needed to set a few extra alarms to be ready at such an early hour; for many, it was the extra adrenaline of knowing that they would run as one united battalion to honor 9/11 that made it worth the sacrifice of sleep.

“Sometimes daily training gets kind of monotonous, but something like today gets you pretty motivated. You get to come out here with the other ROTC battalions, you hear the cadences, and it gets you pretty pumped up,” said John Seaman, senior in LAS and Army cadet sergeant major. “But it’s also somber at the same time.”

Seaman, whose parents are both Army veterans, remembered coming home that day and seeing his mother crying. As with many undergraduates, 9/11 happened when he was just 10 years old, and it was difficult to grasp its significance at that age. More than a decade later, the day has taken on new meaning.

“The older we get, as we get closer to commissioning, we start to realize the importance of what we’re doing,” said Austin Johnson, midshipman second class and junior in LAS.

As they emerged onto the Quad from Nevada Street to begin their victory lap, the sun had begun its ascent and the spirited calls ricocheted off the brick buildings.

Col. Royal P. Mortenson, who was recently instated as the director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute after 29 years of military service, awaited the runners’ arrival at the Union plaza.

“There are thousands and thousands of people who changed their destiny as a result of (9/11),” he said as he addressed the group without a microphone or any notes. “You’re making the same choice.”

The ceremony concluded with local Korean War Marine veteran Ted Sandwell playing taps.

After everyone dispersed to continue the rest of the day, Hnyla emphasized that the run was just a small thing in comparison to the tragedy that took place 11 years ago and the sacrifices that military personnel continue to make today.

“For us to get together as one reserve officer training corps and show that we are one, that’s the least we can do,” he said.

Maggie can be reached at [email protected]