Wheaton middle school teacher Jack Erwin pulls up an app on his phone that shows how much he’s run this summer, “I’ve raised about $1,300 and put in about 240 miles so far to get ready,” he said.
Erwin will run in the Fox Valley Marathon this Sunday in St. Charles as a sponsor of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit for wounded soldiers, veterans and their families, and in honor of his close friend, a sergeant who lost his leg to an IED when they served together in Afghanistan.
Erwin, a special education teacher at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton, served in the Army National Guard for 21 years. He was deployed three times after the September 11 terrorist attacks before his retirement in 2010.
On the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, Erwin said this time of year always digs deep.
“It’s very profound how it’s impacted my life—and so many others’ (lives),” he said.
He recalls the day of the attacks, “I was teaching at , and I had a planning period (before class). I was sitting there, grading papers, and one of my fellow teachers ran in and said, ‘Did you see what happened?’
“We turned on the TV and at first, we thought it was an accident. Then we saw the second plane hit… As soon as I saw that, I was like, ‘No, that’s not an accident, that’s a coordinated attack.’”
“It was just surreal,” he said, recalling his wife feeding their newborn daughter at the time.
“This time of year really resonates with me… like, wow, I’ve really come full circle,” he said. “And I keep having to teach the kids about it, because they were just babies when that happened—or not even born.”
“This, we’ll defend”
While the impact of September 11, 2001, weighs heavily on Erwin, the site of students’ tears and fear at a flagpole ceremony September 12, 2001, was when he knew what he needed to defend.
“At Wheaton North, there was a ceremony at the flagpole, initiated by the kids. They had a prayer session at the flagpole, so I went to work early and just kind of watched and listened. They had a candlelight vigil, said some prayers and (had) made some posters… And I noticed a lot of the kids were crying, and they were scared.
“And one of the mottos of the Army is, ‘This, we’ll defend.’ And it kind of hit me—having been a soldier for so long, I never really understood that until that moment, when I thought, 'Yeah, this, we will defend.’ Shortly thereafter, that’s what I was called to do."
Erwin stood by after a call to his unit on September 11, and a few months later he was called to an airport security mission. Then, in 2003, he left his pregnant wife and toddler daughter for a military police mission in Germany, while U.S. units in Germany went to fight in Iraq, Erwin said. He was there for a year and a half.
In 2005, Erwin’s unit was sent to New Orleans to assist with security after Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, he received notice he would be going to Afghanistan in August 2008. He left August 21, 2008, to serve as a civil military operations officer in the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry with about 3,400 other soldiers. They lost four soldiers in action, and 12 were wounded that year, Erwin said. He returned to his family in Wheaton on August 3, 2009.
“When I left for the Germany deployment, my wife was three months pregnant with my second daughter the day I left. It was kind of hard—for all of us.”
Erwin said he heard about the Wounded Warrior Project on his way home from Afghanistan. The friend he is running for on Sunday—still in active duty soldier—stayed in Walter Reed Hospital for a year after Erwin returned from Afghanistan, and is now back for treatment and therapy, Erwin said.
“I called him to touch base with him again, and I asked him if it was OK if I ran this in his honor. He was really just… thrilled, that I was doing it—very touched by it. So I knew right then I was not going to not finish. I was going to run the marathon and make it no matter what. That’s what’s going to happen... I’m ready right now.”
Erwin’s goal is to finish the marathon this Sunday, with an average mile time of about 11 minutes.
“I’m doing it for him because he’s one of my guys… But I’m also doing it for everyone else. I am one of them—and we’re all brothers and sisters and it’s kind of important to me, so if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it for a reason,” he said.
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