If you've followed the running scene in Minnesota at all, the chances are good that you've heard the name Naslund. Jeannine and John's names have been scattered throughout race results for the last 30-some years. Their daughter Emily is no stranger to running in Minnesota either. As a student at Bloomington Jefferson, she placed 2nd at the State Cross Country Meet as a freshman, won the individual title as a sophomore, and then helped win a team title her junior year. The 25-year-old is now a 1stLt in the Marines and proudly serving in Iraq. Having served 4 years in the navy myself, which included many holidays away from friends and family, I thought it would be very appropriate to share her story during this time of year.
First, can you give us a brief description of your title, job, and mission in Iraq? How long is this tour and where do you go from there?
My job title is 1st Platoon Commander, Truck Company, I MEF Headquarters Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force. How's that for a mouth full? I'm stationed at Camp Fallujah, Iraq which is located about 3km (or as we call it 3 clicks) east of the city of Fallujah, and about 24 clicks west of Baghdad International Airport.
I have 37 Marines under my charge and our mission is to conduct tactical logistics convoys all over Al Anbar Province to deliver supplies such as ammo, food, water, fuel, etc. - and for the Air Force Bases, ice cream. I have run well over 100 convoys, traveling around 17,000 miles on the Main Supply Routes of Iraq.
We are here on a year-long deployment, but since we showed up as the advance party, and are leaving with the last wave, my time spent in Iraq will be 13 month and 2 days by the time we leave. When I return home I plan on first sleeping for a week straight - waking up only to eat American (non-chow hall) food. Then, hopefully I will start training for a deployment to Afghanistan.
How has running helped with your job as a Marine?
Marines are expected to be physically fit, so my background in competitive running has helped me out quite a bit. Don't get me wrong, most Marines hate to run, but we are all fueled by our desire to be the best at everything so we run to maintain that stature.
The first day I showed up to this unit and met my platoon I introduced myself, gave them a quick background of my life, and told them we were going to have platoon commander’s physical training the following morning at 0600. I wanted to set the standard high and let them know that I expected them to be in top physical shape. They formed up, did their stretching and then I hazed them for 7 miles through the hills of Camp Pendleton, CA. I found out later that they were warned that I was a fan of running, so they weren’t surprised when it became a morning ritual.
Some of them were under the impression that the running would stop once we got in-country, but there’s plenty of time out here to run. If there isn’t time, we can make time. There were days when the Marines would get off a 12-hour mission and I’d tell them, “Great convoy Marines, I’ll see you in 20 minutes in PT gear outside my office.” After about 3 months of a grueling PT program, the Marines were in great shape and started to enjoy pushing their bodies to the limit. I continued to push them, but realized after about 6 months that they were hooked and no longer needed me to motivate them. From then on, I let my Platoon Sergeant and Squad Leaders run the PT program and it’s had the same intensity as that first day we met.
In 2007 you ran the Rock 'n Roll Marathon in San Diego with your dad. How was that experience?
Running a marathon is always an adventure, especially with my dad. Because he is always training for the next race, he is a very reliable marathon partner. I, on the other hand, don’t exactly train with as much zeal or consistency. Training for a Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test, which consists of a 3-mile run, pull-ups, and sit-ups, is quite different then marathon training. That was one of the most painful races I’ve ever run, but my dad (once again) pulled me through. By mile 22 he was singing country songs to try and motivate me to run. Since I hate the real twangy country type music, he figured if he started singing that way – it would motivate me to get moving again.
This year you planned on running the Marine Corp Marathon at Camp Fallujah. I imagine marathon training in Iraq, especially during the summer and in the middle of a war, is less than ideal. How did you and the other runners cope with that?
We are in a war zone. Marathons are not the focus, so there are very few who come up with and stick to an actual marathon training schedule. Many of us run to stay in shape or to deal with the stress of being deployed, but the end goal isn’t a fast marathon time. There was only one person that I knew who trained religiously for the race, which was extremely impressive considering his job. GySgt Kazmar was the senior enlisted Marine in charge of the Personal Security Detail for the Deputy Commanding General in Iraq. His job was to escort and protect the General wherever he chose to go. In his spare time, which he didn’t really have, he ran impressive workouts, sometimes going out in the mid-day heat to get his miles in.
He collected pledges from the states to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, having had friends get seriously wounded in this war. He was the only Marine who actually finished all 26.2 miles of the race. After I explain how race day went, you’ll be even more impressed and will agree that Gunny Kazmar is incredibly driven.
What happened on race day?
The race was going to be run at a different base, north of where I’m stationed, called Al Asad (AA). Otherwise known as “Camp Cupcake” because of all the amenities. There were three of us planning on running, so we decided to try and fly to AA by helicopter. Flying standby in Iraq is a lot like flying standby on a commercial airliner. There’s a lot of standing around waiting for your name to be called. The only difference in Iraq is flights can be cancelled due to reasons like; dust storms, indirect fire threats, medical evacuations that are on going, or if the pilots are tired from conducting a mission the night prior. There hadn’t been a dust storm for at least a month, but of course Mother Nature thought, “How could I make the marathon even more miserable? How bout a dust storm?” All flights were cancelled.
We had been running convoys to AA about every three days so our plan B was to convoy up the night before the race. Obviously, that wasn’t preferred because the race was starting at 0600 and the convoy would arrive around 0400 that same morning. We were determined to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon Iraq - after all, there was a free t-shirt involved – so the convoy would have to work. We got as much rest as we could the day before even with having to plan and conduct a mission. At 2200 we got into the trucks and we were off to AA. The roads are not smooth and the sitting with a flak jacket/kevlar on is not the most comfortable way to travel, so by the time we got there it felt like… well, like we just finished a mission.
When we got to AA at 0300, the dust had gone away and was replaced by a thunder storm. AA sits in what used to be a river bed, so when it rains everything floods. This wasn’t any ol’ thunderstorm, this was a sign from God that we shouldn’t be running a marathon. We parked the vehicles and made our way into the transient billeting which consists of a large tent with military style cots inside. The tent was howling as the wind picked up and it was pouring rain. There was one other runner in the “female only” runner tent – and when we stumbled in at 0400 soaking wet she wasn’t happy about her beauty sleep being interrupted. I wanted to be like, “Look Marine, we just got off a convoy, we’re tired, soaking wet, and we’re running the same race you are tomorrow – so quit looking at me like we are putting you out.” It was a good thing I kept my mouth shut because she ended up being a Captain.
We weren’t stationed at AA, so we had to show up early to pick up our numbers. 0500 was the packet pick up time – so instead of napping we just stayed up and tried to get warm. We made our way over to the gym where the packets could be picked up and it was still pouring rain. The gym at Camp Cupcake is nice, so we had a place to get in out of the rain. There were about 100 people who showed up to run, which was more then I expected to see, considering the conditions. The race was going to start at 0630. They wanted to beat the heat – only that backfired because the temperatures had dropped to the 50’s. There was lightning close by so the start time was postponed in order to keep the runners safe. At 0800 they made an announcement that the race would begin in 30 minutes no matter what. They also informed us that the course wouldn’t be open longer than originally planned, so instead of having 6 hours to finish, we only had 4:30. “If you want to run a half marathon instead, that will be OK,” the race director said. Because we were all Marines, everyone exchanged looks and said “YEAH RIGHT”.
The race finally started at 0830 in the still pouring rain. The roads had about an inch of water so everyone’s shoes were soaked by mile 2. At the 10km, we came up to a street corner, which was under 2 feet of muddy water. No one slowed down, we just sloshed through it yelling “OORAH… GET SOME… MOTIVATE… BRING IT!” The only good thing about the ridiculous conditions was that it kept our mind off or any sort of misery that comes with muscle fatigue. We were too busy trying not to drown in the flooded streets of AA. At mile 8 we started our first of four turn- arounds, and continued to yell motivation to our fellow Marine marathoners.
We were heading back towards the start line when we started hearing from the volunteers, “All runners head straight to the finish line. The race has been officially cancelled.” My running partners and I looked at each other and laughed saying, “That’s a messed up joke.” When we realized that it really was cancelled, everyone angrily ran to the finish line to hear why this amazing adventure race could possibly be cancelled. We found out that a levy had broken somewhere near miles 10-13 and that stretch of road was chest deep in water. Initially, we didn’t care and told them it was a poor excuse. Later we found out there were also downed power lines that had landed in the water, as well as about 10 porta-potties floating down the road. I was up for an adventure, but swimming down a road with porta-potties floating next to me was a little over the top.
We did get a free t-shirt!
You're no stranger to running in Minnesota with an individual title and team title under your belt. What do you remember most from your high school days as a runner?
The races I remember the most were the track and field State Meet my freshmen year, the cross country state meet my freshmen and sophomore year, and Footlocker track and field nationals both of those years. Although I enjoyed track more than cross-country, both seasons were fun and there was always an adventure to be had.
My favorite thing to do in HS was to take my team on Naslund adventure runs. These runs were nothing more then me leading the team into some park, nature trail, or neighborhood – inevitably getting us lost and having to navigate our way back to the start point. I would always get excited when I saw a new trail and say, “Hey, check it out! Let’s see where this trail goes.” There were other girls on the team that acted as the voice of reason, but we always ended up checking it out and it almost always backfired. At least we have stories to tell and adventures to talk about. Adventures like getting stuck in a huge hole about 10’ deep x 40’ wide x 20’ long, coming to an icy creek – wading through it – and continuing to run on the other side, and trying to cross a swamp with about half the girls losing their shoes in the knee deep mud.
Actually, come to think of it, HS prepared me pretty well for the Marine Corps.
Given that you're the leader of a Marine platoon, is it safe to say that the team title you won was more rewarding than the individual title you won?
Running is very much an individual sport, but team titles are always special too. The reason our team state title meant so much was because we broke Duluth East’s 7-year winning streak. They talked trash every year about being the best, but that year we showed up with so much talent there was nothing that could stop us. I ran with the same girls from 7th grade until senior year, so we knew each other pretty well and had some great times at the meets. Everyone worked hard at practice and it paid of when it came time to compete. There’s no better feeling then standing on the top of the podium with my team.
What do you consider your strengths? Weaknesses?
I was surprised at how I reacted when we hit IEDs while out here. I didn’t panic and was able to direct my Marines to safely recover from the attacks. You never know how you’ll react to something like that until you are put into that situation. So, my strength is to stay calm when presented with a problem.
My greatest fear is to lose a Marine in an attack and having to live the rest of my life feeling like I should have done something different. My weakness would be dealing with that situation.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
Hands down, my dad. When I do have the opportunity, I don’t take him up on the offers as much as I should. When I was in Hawaii on R&R with my family, like clockwork, every morning I’d get a wake up call from him and an invitation to go for a run. I only took him up on the offer several times because I figured it would be months before I got the opportunity to sleep in every day. When I got back to Iraq, one of my biggest regrets was not getting out there and spending an extra hour with my parents each day. We’ve had a lot of heart to heart talks while running along the beaches of Hawaii, around the lakes in Minneapolis, in the dome, and through Hyland Park.
Finally, is there anything else you'd like us to know about you, your Marines, Iraq, etc.?My Marines are amazing, hard-working, and genuine people who continue to amaze me on a daily basis. Please keep them in your prayers. This year has been hard on them, but they still have challenges coming up. Getting adjusted back to life in the civilian world will be difficult and will take some time.
Thanks again for the support and Semper Fi,
1stLt Emily Naslund