|by Randy Wyrick • January 6, 2005|
The mountain just outside the gates of Jeremy Wright's Army base near Kabul, Afghanistan was made for him and had one purpose - for him to run up.
Wright, 31, never saw anything he couldn't run up. About a month after he arrived in Afghanistan the Army decided the mountain was safe enough for one of the world's best trail runners to train on.
Why would Wright run up a mountain? Because he could do it faster than almost anyone in the world.
"It gained about 1,000 feet in elevation for every couple miles," said college teammate Scott Gall. "Knowing Jeremy he was running repeats on it."
The mountain was safe. The valley, it turned out, was not. Wright, 31, a former Vail resident, was a communications sergeant and a Green Beret in the Army's Special Forces. He and some of his comrades were on a routine patrol late Sunday when their Humvee hit a homemade bomb - either that or the bomb was detonated as they drove past.
Either way the results are the same. Wright became another American death in Operation Enduring Freedom. Two others in the vehicle were seriously injured and flown to a hospital in Germany.
Wright's family got the word about 11:30 a.m., Monday. His closest friends, college teammates and soulmates - including Gall and Roger Busch - heard early Monday afternoon.
Wright, Gall and Busch were the Three Amigos. They grew up in small Indiana towns. They learned about each other in high school, competing in track and cross country meets.
The three were thrown together at the cross-country training camp at tiny Wabash College in Indiana the week before school started. They were together all four years, and together they thrust Wabash to the top of the collegiate running world.
They ran together, won together, lost together, lived together, laughed together. They visited each other during breaks. After they graduated they moved to Laramie, Wyo., together.
But now the Three Amigos are down one. It's a big hole for such a small group.
Busch and Gall live about a mile apart in Iowa.
"I was pretty numb to it," said Gall. "When my dad called and said he had some tragic news, I thought it would be someone I know, but not someone I was close to. I started shaking."
Busch said he also felt numb.
"Yesterday was a little rough," he said Wednesday. "This afternoon Scott and I are going snowshoeing."
Either Gall or Busch, or both of them, talked to Wright almost every day from Afghanistan.
At first, the Army seemed perfect for him, they said: It gave him direction and it gave him goals and a team with which to achieve them. Busch said Wright talked about making a career in the military.
Training and learning was right up his alley. Wright graduated with honors from Wabash, one of only two all-men's colleges in the country, Then, the Shelbyville, Ind. native got straight As at the University of Wyoming, where he earned his master's degree in microbiology.
He had been accepted to the Indiana University medical school. Instead, he decided to join the military.
Busch recalled that after Wright took the Army's entrance tests, the recruiting sergeant said, "Has anyone ever told you you're a genius?"
The recruiter said he'd never seen scores that high, and that Wright could have any job he wanted. He wanted to be a Green Beret, which meant there were jump school, survival schools, weapons schools and communications schools where he learned to train soldiers from other country's armies - in their native languages - to operate communication equipment. He had just learned Thai.
The Army decided the training was over and sent him to Afghanistan in November. His friends say he began to grow bored and disillusioned.
"I talked to him about every day," Busch said. "You could tell he couldn't say what he was doing. He was in Special Forces, he was a Green Beret.
"Last Thursday was the first time I heard him say that once his obligation was up, he'd probably leave the Army," Busch added.
But he was communications sergeant. He spent most of his time in a tower. If anyone was safe, he was. Wasn't he?
"For everyone ... it's a shock," said Nancy Hobbs, chairperson of the USA Track and Field Mountain Ultra Running Council. "We knew he was in Afghanistan, but thought that since he's usually in a communication tower, he's safe. Those kids over there are not safe. None of them."
Wabash College officials called Wright "brilliant."
"Jeremy's rare combination of intellect, courage, discipline, and passion made him a naturally brilliant distance runner," Wabash College spokesman Jim Amidon said. "Those are the same qualities that made him a fine soldier, too, the kind of officer our country needs in the military."
Gall recalled the time Wright won the Indiana high school 3,200-meter title.
"He had to out kick a guy on the last 100 meters to win," Gall said. "He was interviewed afterward and was asked what he was thinking during that kick. He said, 'No one remembers second place.' That's just how he was. He was pretty intense."
Earlier that year he was second in the state cross country meet. Indiana does not classify its schools by size for track and cross country. Everyone comes, everyone runs, one athlete wins.
Busch said Wright ran track because he had to and because he was great at it, but he didn't like it. He loved cross country and he was passionate about trail running and snowshoeing. During his years in Vail, he supported himself winning snowshoe races.
"He hated running on pavement and in circles," said Busch. "He'd say something like, 'Great, I just got nowhere faster than another guy.' He did it in college because it was necessary.
"We always wondered if they could make curling an Olympic sport, why not snowshoeing?" Busch added. "Jeremy and Scott would have definitely had a spot on the U.S. Olympic team."
If it went toward the sky, Wright would run up it. He won the Pikes Peak Ascent a time or two, the Vail Hill Climb repeatedly - almost any race that involved topography, he crossed the finished line first. He went to Alaska and ran the mountain marathon in Seward a couple years back.
Money was not the motivator for any of them, Busch and Gall agreed.
"Many of the people we graduated with want to make as much money as they can," they said. "We had a different outlook. We'd rather pursue experiences than monetary rewards."
Like the experience of traveling the world with the U.S. trail running team: the World Championships in 1997 in the Czech Republic, 1998 at Reunion Island, 1999 in Malaysia, 2001 in Italy.
Or the time Wright was on leave from the Army for Christmas 2003 and visited Gall in Iowa, where Gall now lives with his wife. They grabbed Busch and The Three Amigos did what they always did - broke a sweat.
They went running, then mountain biking. They crossed a river, carrying their bikes above their heads while the frigid water flowed up to their necks. An old guy nearby wisely advised, "I wouldn't do that."
"Later we asked ourselves, 'Why do we do things like that?'" said Gall.
The answer was obvious, "Because it's fun," said Gall.
After college track meets they'd go mountain biking, then show up at a party caked with mud and sweat, while all the other guys had their hair slicked down wearing polo shirts.
After their sophomore year at Wabash, the three headed west for the summer for altitude training. They landed in Gunnison, where, in between shifts working on a resort ranch, they ran up anything that would stand still. They did the same thing next summer.
"We were brothers," said Gall. "We all had sisters, but none of us had brothers."
After Wabash, Wright headed to Laramie first, soon joined by the other two amigos. In Wyoming, they ran all the trails, they skate- and cross country skied and they snowshoed - if it could get them outside, that's where they went.
"He loved being outside," said Gall. "That's where God was for him, and he wanted to be out there."
Local endurance athletic legend Mike Kloser called Wright's death a tragedy.
"It's always sad when someone dies, especially when they're serving the cause of freedom for us and the world," Mike Kloser said. "I raced him several times, and he raced for us at Beaver Creek, before he pursued the military. He was great representative for us, and we're proud to have him race with us."
Busch and Gall said it didn't matter where they were, as long as they were together and active.
"When you get together and Jeremy was there, that was the coolest place," said Gall. "If you were hanging out in your house, that was where you wanted to be.
"I had always thought we'd get to be together again."
Friend Hobbs, who traveled extensively with him for international trail running events, said Wright was humble and unassuming, but had a smile that " lit up a room."
"He's the kind of guy girls would take home to their families," she said.
All Wright, All American
A list of some of the athletic and academic accomplishments of Sgt. Jeremy Wright:
• Two-time All-American cross-country runner.
• First team Academic All-American.
• Won a total of seven Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference distance running championships, including three in the 10,000 meters, two in cross country, and two in the 5,000 meter run.
• Twice Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference cross country Most Valuable Runner.
• Won Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference league championship in 1993 and 1995.
• 1993, NCAA Great Lakes Regional champion.
• 2002 inducted into the Wabash Athletics Hall of Fame
• Honors graduate from Wabash College with a major in chemistry.
• Four times named to Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference's All-Academic Team.
Local Vail Valley athletes are planning a memorial snowshoe event. Details will be announced later. Funeral details are also pending. Jeremy Wright was the son of Jackie and Bill Nickel, Shelbyville, Ind., and Dale Wright, Flat Rock, Ind.
No more burnt-popcorn treatment
Jeremy Wright's friends, Thane M. Bushong, Scott Gall and Roger Busch, wrote up the following after his death in Afghanistan Monday:
"He was the best of us! I miss him already. No more barbeque-and-pepperoni pizzas, no more riding off embankments (ALONE) or looking back to see Jeremy laughing at your separated shoulder and calling you a "freak show." No more crazy-colored hair. No more partner in crime to give Pete the "burnt-popcorn treatment." No more dunky ball on a 7-foot goal. No more mashed bananas to freeze on Ethan's windows. No more face down snow angels after 20 test tube shots at Kilroys. No more sitting in silence watching the Simpsons and being totally cool with it Worst of all, no more friend. If friends are measured in how much they would give for you, then Jeremy will be the best friend that any of us will ever have. If anything positive is to come from this, let's all just hold Jeremy in our hearts and remember the times we had and strive each day to be just a little more like him - a true friend to those who are here with us."
Randy Wyrick is a staff writer for the Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org