At the starting line, it was a crisp April morning, in 2009. I lined up with the sub-5 hour pacer and looked around at the 3,000-plus athletes who were about to run the 26.2 miles with me in Big Sur that day. A recording of the Star Spangled Banner played and tears began running down my face. I looked at the sky and prayed for the strength to run my first marathon.
Prior to 2008, I had never run six miles — let alone 26. My inspiration to run this race and the 13 marathons, 17 half-marathons, and countless training miles that followed – has been my brother, U.S. Army Major Andrew ”AJ” Tong.
In August 2007, I received a call from my mother. She was crying and yelling. “AJ has been hit, Katie, he has been hit.”
My brother AJ, a career military man, was on tour and in combat in northern Iraq. AJ had spent more than three years overseas on a number of missions and was three two weeks away from coming home. That night AJ led his unit of 200-plus men and women through the desert in the northern Shiite district of Baquba. His vehicle, third in the convoy, was hit by an EFP that exploded on the passenger side, where my brother was seated.
During the days that followed, my mother and I were lost. We didn’t even know where he would be transported — to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC or a new facility, Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas? Finally, five days after the explosion, I was headed to Fort Sam Houston to see my brother for the first time in three years.
Walking through the hospital, I began to perceive a common theme among the soldiers I saw. These soldiers, so many were missing limbs, but also so many were burn victims.
This, I knew, was to be my new reality.
I was the first of my family to arrive. Walking into my older brother AJ’s room and spotting him, I was momentarily filled with relief. He looked the same. But he wasn’t. AJ was in a hospital gown, sitting in a bed and missing his right leg below the knee. I walked over to him and we both started crying and hugged each other. My brother and I rarely showed emotion with each other, but nothing mattered at that point. Sitting there, just my brother and me for two hours, was one of the most raw emotional experiences that I have ever had in my life.
Here I sat with the man who protected me from bullies, taught me how to drive and fish — and now he sat in a bed, unable to walk and beyond vulnerable. Those next days and weeks all kind of melded together. My family’s new reality was countless surgeries on AJ’s leg to close the wound and remove shrapnel from the explosion.
Here I was pushing my brother — who is 6-foot-5-inches, 200 pounds — in a wheelchair to physical therapy four times a day. The traditional older brother / younger sister role was reversed and here I was a pillar of strength for someone who had carried me all of my life.
This rehabilitation and recovery went on for nine months. My mother, who is retired, lived with AJ in a veterans family residence called the Fisher House in Fort Sam Houston. I returned home and would come back every other week to relieve my mom so she could have a chance to decompress. Days were spent taking AJ to his physical therapy appointments, getting fitted for prosthetics, talking out the recurring PTSD memories, and adjusting to this new reality.
This new reality was and is the stake in the ground that changed my family’s life. This tragic event forced us to not be complacent, but to value each day and never settle. It has been nine years since AJ nearly lost his life. My brother is my best friend, the father I never had, and my inspiration to be the best person I can be. I have watched AJ face each day and overcome struggles that no human should ever have to deal with. Despite everything that has happened he continues to put me and my mother first. This man is the epitome of a selfless leader and inspires me to do the same.
Since his injury, AJ has made it his mission to help other soldiers and their families who have been faced with injuries as a result of the wars. He has been a spokesperson for the Fisher House, a nonprofit that provides housing for soldiers and their families while they are receiving care at military treatment facilities and VA hospitals across the country and in Germany. Through his advocacy and efforts to build awareness for this non-profit, millions of dollars have been raised to build and update new facilities.
I am so proud of AJ and all his efforts to support military personnel and their families. Whether it is through his work at the VA, Fisher House, or participating in the Marine Corps Marathon – hands down he is an extraordinaire leader. With that said, I am excited to announce that I will competing with AJ and a number of other wounded veterans in the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia this fall.
I am excited to run this race in our nation’s capital, but most of all share this experience with my brother. With the support of the Semper Fi Fund, AJ and other military veterans will be able to compete in this race with zero out of pocket expenses. It is organizations like the Semper Fi Fund that support soldiers in their recovery and transition back into their communities.
Dear readers, I ask for your support in donating to Semper Fi Fund and continue to support their efforts in assisting over 16,000 veterans and their families. It is an amazing organization and I am so proud to be able to use the Ladyhawk platform and raise awareness.
In closing today is the 9th anniversary of AJ’s Alive Day. Today, I celebrate this amazing individual who proudly served our country and continues to lead authentically in his community. I am incredibly lucky to call this man my brother, hero, best friend, and can’t wait to cross the finish line with him at the Marine Corps War Memorial this fall.
See you at the trailhead!