Every Wednesday for more than a year, I drove past a sign on Santa Fe Drive that reads “Navy SEAL Danny Dietz Memorial Highway” and wondered, “Who’s that?” And every time, I’d forget to look it up when I got home. Then came the blockbuster Lone Survivor—the Hollywood portrayal of Operation Red Wings, a mission in which four Navy SEALs were ambushed in Afghanistan in 2005—and I stopped wondering.
Danny Dietz Jr. was one of those four SEALs. The Littleton man was just 25 years old when, on June 28, 2005, he and the three other SEALs were attacked by a much larger force of mujahedeen fighters in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. Over the course of the firefight, Dietz was shot at least nine times, but he continued to defend his teammates, even when he was no longer able to stand. Dietz died on the mountain that day, along with Matthew Axelson and Michael Murphy. So did the 16 other SEALs and Army special operations aviators in the helicopter that was shot down while en route to rescue them. But Dietz’s teammate Marcus Luttrell survived. For his actions that day, Dietz was awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second highest honor for valor.
Over the past six months, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Dietz’s family and friends while reporting a story for the July issue of 5280 (out Friday!). While many families who have suffered such an unbearable loss might prefer to heal in silence, the Dietz family continues to share Danny’s story, despite the emotional toll. They continue Dietz’s legacy through two foundations, including the Danny Dietz Memorial Fund, a scholarship for Heritage High School students, and the Danny Dietz Leadership and Training Foundation, which helps local youth through physical training, tutoring, and counseling. This Saturday, the Foundation will recognize the 10th anniversary of Operation Red Wings with the Danny Dietz Memorial Fitness Challenge. The event is both a celebration of Dietz’s legacy and also a fundraiser for the foundation. The fitness challenge honors the date the men of Operation Red Wings were lost (6/28/05) by asking participants to do six different exercises, 28 times each, for five sets. This year, those exercises are burpees, sit-ups, push-ups, a plate lift (25 pounds for women, 45 for men), box jumps, and a 28-yard bear crawl.
Six weeks ago, I signed up. A former college athlete who works out regularly, I considered myself in decent shape and figured it wouldn’t be all that difficult. I gathered a few other 5280 staffers for a trial run. We got through one and a half rounds. It took us almost 40 minutes. And I knew I was in trouble. Individually, none of the exercises are insurmountable. Together, it becomes a grueling, lung- and muscle-burning war of attrition, one in which you have to fight your mind (oh my god this is awful…that’s only 14?…I have to stop…I thought the bear crawl was supposed to be a rest…another round? Again?….I can’t do this…) almost as much as the oxygen-deprivation. With the support of those 5280 staffers and their spouses, I committed myself to an early morning training routine to ensure I could at least get through the whole thing with a smidge of dignity. Over the course of the past few weeks, though, I’ve gained more than just endurance; I’ve gained a new outlook on enduring suffering.
As I gradually crept up from two rounds to three then four, I discovered that complaining about my misery—either aloud or internally—didn’t get me to the end any faster. So I stopped. I played mental games, breaking every set down into smaller and smaller sets, so that my 28 burpees became two sets of 14, or four sets of seven. And when that stopped working (usually around burpee number 22), I’d tell myself, Just do one more. And then again, just do one more.
This Saturday I’ll put that training to the test with more than 100 others at Heritage High School, where the event is held. Despite a forecast that calls for 90-plus degree heat, I’m confident. Not because I’ve transformed into some crazy elite enduro athlete in six weeks (I still huff and puff when I have to climb more than three flights of stairs), but because I know when I hit the wall, when I think I can’t do even one more, I’ll think of Dietz, and all he suffered through on that mountain, all he had to go through just to become a SEAL in the first place, and I’ll tell myself, If he can do that, you can do this.
Just do one more.
The Memorial Challenge is still accepting entries. If the couch has called a few too many times for you to exert yourself in the 90-degree heat this Saturday, that’s OK, too. You can still spectate (there will be parachute jumpers, a color guard, and guest speakers), support the competitors, and—most important—honor Dietz and the other men lost in Operation Red Wings.
Follow senior editor Kasey Cordell on Twitter @KaseyCordell.