Traffic along the I-5 moved slowly to and from downtown San Diego as the late summer sun held high in the cornflower blue sky. A curl of cars exited at Mission Bay Park, training ground for many of the area’s fitness enthusiasts and serious competitors alike. In 2008 and again in 2011 the park’s lush green lawns hosted the USATF National Cross Country Championships. But thoughts of speed and championship performances were far from the minds and hearts of the hundreds of people who came to the park last night (Aug. 17, 2011). Instead, as deepening summer shadows cut through the velvety green, San Diego’s running and triathlon communities gathered to bid farewell to one of their own.
35-year-old Petty Officer 1st class Jon Tumilson had run along Mission Bay Park hundreds of times in the years he was stationed in San Diego as a Navy Seal. And though he transferred to Virginia Beach in April 2009 to join fabled SEAL Team 6, the native of Rockford, Iowa kept his connections to America’s Finest City strong and vibrant.
“JT”, as he was known, lost his life along with 37 others this August 6th (2011) in Afghanistan’s Wardak province when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down as it flew into harm’s way to assist a group of pinned down Army Rangers. The news stunned communities across the country who had come to care deeply for JT and his comrades. Here in San Diego Mission Bay Park is where those he met and bonded with felt most at home to share their loss and say their goodbyes.
“If he was sitting in the sun next to me, I’d be in the shade,” said Kevin McCarey, the man whose Tuesday night workouts along the bay have been the glue to the San Diego running community for years. “That’s how big he was. He’d have talked to Jim Walsh (top local master’s runner), and say, “there’s a lot of great looking babes in the audience. That was JT, too.”
At 6’4”, 210 or more pounds, Jon Tumilson was no lean gazelle. A wrestler back in his high school days in Rockford, Iowa, his commanding size never deterred his love for the sport of foot racing or the grueling challenge of triathlon.
“He should’ve been a football player or rugby player,” continued McCarey, himself a still-sinewy reminder of his sixth-place finish at the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon. “But he chose the hardest event, the marathon because seals don’t quit. Seals don’t give up.”
“I met him in 2000 at one of Kevin’s workouts,” recalled Mike Rouse, VP of Running at K-Swiss. “I remember thinking, ‘what’s that big lug gonna do out here? But he would gut himself on those runs. In that half-ironman, he ran 1:30-low off the bike in the half-marathon. We were really impressed how good a runner he was.”
Maybe it was the SEAL in him, but JT didn’t stop at the marathon. In 2006 he was the 73.3 Half-Ironman Clydesdale (over 200 lbs.) champion.
“He had a respect for this level of suffering,” agreed Jim Vance, a Pacific Beach-based triathlete and coach who mentored Tumilson through his half-ironman training. “Other than his size, and the confidence with which he carried himself, you’d never know he was one of our elite soldiers. He was so humble. No person was too small for him, nor any challenge too big. We talked the day before he left. He said he was going to ship out, and wanted to talk about Iowa-Nebraska.”
Vance is a University of Nebraska alum who still holds Cornhusker football season tickets. Tumilson was a lifelong Iowa Hawkeye fan. Even as he was shipping out for what was to be his last assignment, JT’s concerns were back with his friends in San Diego.
“He sent e-mails from wherever he was,” recalled Kim Rouse, Mike’s wife and highly accomplished age-group runner and triathlete. “We didn’t always know where he was, but he’d write, ‘Mom and Pop, everything’s good’. And maybe he’d add a dumb joke. He was just a big country kid.”
As she spoke Kim clutched a handful of red, white, and blue ribbons. A tear edged onto her voice as she tied the ribbons around people’s wrists before adding a hug.
The parking lot along Mission Bay Park had filled as the crowd continued to swell. Cars were now pulling out onto East Mission Bay Drive to secure roadside parking.
“We don’t lose too many seals,” Jim Vance concluded, looking out to the shining waters of Mission Bay. “I think people are finally beginning to understand the sacrifice of this war.”
The 21 other U.S. Navy SEALS who died three weeks ago with JT in Afghanistan together represented the highest one-day loss in the decade-old war. The previous mark came in 2005 when another a Chinook helicopter that had an additional 8 SEALS and 8 Air Force personnel was shot down while coming to the aid of the four SEALs pinned down in Kunar province. All but one of those SEALS, Marcus Luttrell, was killed in that crash. Luttrel would later pen a book, Lone Survivor, telling the story of what happened during that fateful mission.
“JT went to Texas to help Marcus recover,” explained McCarey as he addressed the crowd from the back of a pickup truck. “Friday Marcus Lutrrell will be in Iowa to be at JT’s funeral. Remember JT. Keep him in your love.”
With the sun a falling but nurturing presence, the colorful line of runners jogged south toward Fiesta Island. Some would go just one mile, others three, and some the entire seven-mile loop, covering the smooth pavement that snaked through the carpeted grass JT had run over so many times himself.
And when the line of runners passed around the bend and out of sight, Mission Bay Park returned to its natural early evening rhythms with dogs straining at their leashes, children cruising by on their bikes, older couples walking hand in hand, and jet skis rooster-tailing on the dancing waters. Each was an unknowing recipient of JT’s bravery and commitment, so very few custodians of the pain and loss of his passing.
The green lawns along the bay lay silent once again as a soft off-shore breeze moved into the trees. Through the years, our nation has dedicated similar spreads of green where white crosses and simple marble headstones bear witness, and gentle breezes caress memories of those who remain behind. But the factual language we use to describe either the place or the men says little if anything about the legacy of a man like JT Tumilson.
“You couldn’t help but fall in love with the guy,” is how Kevin McCarey chose to remember. Others will scratch his name on some wall, or doodle his initials on a piece of paper in endless variation while thinking of a name now caught somewhere between memory and legend.