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Tragedy propels two brothers to train for Air Force Marathon

  • Published
  • By Chris McGee
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Charlie Witt and his brother had plans. When Charlie retired from the Air Force in September 2007 as a master sergeant after a 20-year career, he and his brother agreed to run the 2008 U.S. Air Force Marathon together.

An avid marathon runner who completed the U.S. Air Force Marathon in three hours and seven minutes in 2007, Charlie's brother offered to train Charlie for this year's event.

Today, Charlie adheres to a consistent running schedule of six days and seven to eight hours per week. But as he trains, he has to do so without his marathon-running brother, just as he'll have to do when he runs the marathon Sept. 20.

On May 30, Charlie's brother -- Lt. Col. Dan Witt, 42, a C-5 pilot with the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB -- perished when the Piper Cherokee aircraft in which he was a passenger crashed a quarter-mile from the Highland County Airport near Hillsboro, Ohio, shortly after takeoff.

The pilot of the aircraft - Denver Smith, 74, of Beavercreek, Ohio - also died in the crash. An investigation has yet to determine the cause of the accident.

Colonel Witt left behind his wife, Col. Lisa Witt of the Air Force Reserve, and three children, daughter Eva, 17, and sons Eric, 16, and Peter, 12.

Charlie recalls the moment he received the devastating news.

"It was Friday and I had just arrived home from work," said Charlie, a marketing manager for an aerospace electronics contract manufacturer. "I received a call from my niece, Dan's daughter.

"When I retired, I moved to Enon, Ohio, and lived just 1.5 miles from Dan," Charlie said. "We're 15 months apart in age and were very close. Dan's death is the worst thing that has ever happened to me or my family."

For Charlie, the last couple of months have been about finding a way to manage emotions and coping with each day.

"I get up every morning and try to be productive," he said. "We do our best to smile and find some joy, because ultimately, that's what you have to do and that's what Dan would have wanted us to do.

"I visit his grave often and try to live my life better," he continued. "I try to be a better person, husband, father, friend and brother."

Even though Charlie won't be able to run with his brother Dan, he will have another family member by his side to run with him, his older brother Jim, a former Air Force reservist who served as a loadmaster and currently is working in sales in Akron, Ohio.

"Jim has always been active but never ran competitively like Dan and I did," Charlie said. "I know he's training hard."

He reflects on the bond his brothers and he shared and how that connection led to a generous and sincere overture from Dan to appeal to Charlie to run the marathon with him.

"When we discussed running the marathon together, he said, 'Charlie, I'll run it with you step for step from start to finish.' And he would have, because that's how he was," Charlie explained.

"I need to point out, if I finish in less than five hours, I'll be very happy," he continued. "Dan didn't care how long it would have taken us, even though he ran the marathon last year in three hours and seven minutes. He only cared that we ran it together and finished together."

Dan's proposal appears all the more remarkable when considering his competitive running background. According to Charlie, Dan ran numerous marathons, even qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and was an accomplished track and field star in high school, excelling in the mile and cross country.

"In high school, Dan won districts and regionals and all that stuff," Charlie said. "He began to run for the University of Cincinnati but decided his studies in his chemistry major as well as ROTC were enough, so he just ran for pleasure. He was a very good all-around athlete, even as a kid. He was an all-star in baseball and played peewee and junior high football and basketball."

Charlie quickly agreed to run the marathon with Dan when the two brothers first discussed the idea. Running was a connection the brothers shared since boyhood, and Charlie recognized that, due to his knee problems, the window of opportunity to run a marathon with Dan might be closing for him.

"I knew my body would not be up to it much longer, and this was something I always wanted to do with him," Charlie said. "Dan and I started running when we were 9 or 10 years old, and he never gave it up. This will probably be my first and last marathon, because my knees are failing."

While Dan remained an avid and consistent runner, Charlie's running has been more intermittent. Even so, the approaching marathon and the pledge he and Dan made to run the marathon together has re-ignited a desire to train diligently.

"I started running in grade school and have done so off and on ever since," he said. "I've become active again because of my desire to run the marathon. I have never run a full marathon before; the most miles I've run is about 20.

"I've been mostly tracking the length of time I run as opposed to the distance," he continued. "I'm averaging about 9.5 minutes per mile, so I'm not setting any records."

As Charlie continues his preparations for running the marathon, he keeps his brother's memory close to his heart. While Dan will be with him and his brother Jim in spirit as they run, it is Dan's example of life and faith that will continue with Charlie long after the 2008 marathon is over.

According to Charlie, Dan's faith in God was central to who he was. Dan would attend Catholic Mass every Sunday with his wife and children, and when he was flying, he would attend services wherever he was.

"Have you ever met somebody that made you feel very good about yourself and at the same time, made you want to be a better person?" Charlie asked. "That was how Danny made people feel. He was non-judgmental of others, and he lived his life to a moral standard that most of us just can't live to.

"He was not pretentious, but he was thoughtful, kind and patient," he said. "Dan had tremendous leadership skills and was extremely intelligent. He had a great sense of humor, was sharp and was liked by everyone, and although he was the youngest of nine children, in many ways, he was the leader of the family and provided the glue to keep us together."

Dan's example and memory will again be the glue that will bind his brothers as they run each step of the course in Dan's honor, propelled not by the spirit of competition but by the love of and for a brother.