Tawana Hairston lost her husband, Sam, in Afghanistan. She’ll be running this weekend thanks to a nonprofit group, wear blue: run to remember.
By the time Army Sgt. 1st Class Tawana Hairston reached the halfway mark in her first marathon, she started to occasionally imagine her husband riding his bike next to her. The mind game served as a simple way to help her keep running toward the finish line last December.
When Hairston ran her first half-marathon in 2012, her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Sam Hairston, really did ride his bike on the sidewalk, since it was an all-female race. When he got injured and couldn’t train at times for the marathon the two wanted to run together, he did the same.
Hairston and her husband planned to run a marathon in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2014. Hairston was registered, but her husband waited. As a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, he knew there was a chance he could be deployed before the race, and ultimately he was. After leaving for Afghanistan in February, Sam Hairston was killed in action in August. The shared goal turned into one she completed alone.
The 37-year-old Hairston, a combat medic serving as an HHC (headquarters and headquarters company) first sergeant in Honolulu, will run her second marathon on Sunday in Seattle. When a nonprofit organization called “wear blue: run to remember” presented a chance to run in her husband’s memory at the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, she couldn’t refuse.
“Whether she has to travel or not, when it’s in honor or memory of Sammy, she goes,” said Teresa Quebodeaux, a longtime friend of Hairston. “She’s there. She does it.”
Before her husband was deployed, Hairston said she was far along in her training heading into what she thought would be her first marathon. But after he left for Afghanistan, Hairston stopped running.
“I didn’t even realize it, but I think I was in a state of depression,” said Hairston, who met Sam in 2007 and married him in April 2010.
Six months after her husband’s deployment, on Aug. 12, 2014, Hairston woke up at 3:30 a.m. to do the first day of a workout plan that had been effective for her. That was the first thing she planned to tell her husband when he called.
The two talked every three or four days, and this was the fourth day without hearing from him. That’s when she would start to get worried.
Hairston, who served in Afghanistan for nine months in 2013, was a platoon sergeant at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Before physical training began at 6:30 a.m., Hairston went to her office to check her phone. Hoping for a call from her husband, she had a missed call from her 15-year-old son, Hayden Motes, instead. She called back and her son said two men in dress uniforms had come to the door.
Hairston went to Jose Perez, her first sergeant at the time, and said, “First Sergeant, I don’t want to freak out, but I’m about to freak out.”
Perez used to be a casualty assistance officer, and he told Hairston the two typical reasons the men in dress uniforms would come to her house: “He’s injured, and he’s on his way to the mainland or to Germany. Or the worst thing.”
About 20 minutes later, the two men, a casualty assistance officer and a chaplain, arrived at Hairston’s office and introduced themselves.
“On behalf of the Secretary of the Army,” the officer began.
Perez knew the words wouldn’t be this formal if Hairston’s husband had been injured.
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regrets that,” the officer continued.
By then, Perez said he thinks Hairston knew what happened.
“Your husband has been killed in action.”
Hairston collapsed to the floor in front of her desk.
For the next three months, Hairston navigated an in-between mental state where her husband was dead, but he didn’t quite feel gone. In November, Hairston went to the homecoming of his unit. Her husband wasn’t there. And then, it finally felt real.
“I wanted to hold on to something,” Hairston said. “The mind is a scary thing. I even tried to talk to myself: ‘Are you crazy? He’s not coming home.’ I still needed that closure.”
The two had done everything together — like a “love-story novel,” Perez said — so figuring out life without her husband took time.
“I didn’t really recognize myself without Sam,” Hairston said.
Early in 2015, Hairston began running again, which was difficult because it was something she had shared with her husband. Crossing the finish line at her first marathon was emotional. The plan was for them to finish the same race.
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After that marathon in December, she didn’t think she would run another one. Then, she received an email. It was an application to be chosen as one of the wear blue: run to remember participants in this weekend’s marathon. Being part of that community showed Hairston how she could use running as a way to honor her husband.
Hairston doesn’t mind talking about her husband. It’s therapeutic, but even if it wasn’t, she’d still share his story for the same reason she’s running 26.2 miles in Seattle this weekend.
She doesn’t want him to be forgotten.
“If it brings memory to his name and keeps him alive,” she said, “I’m always willing to do it.”