U.S. Army veteran Chris Conley has been known in the past for his passion for storm chasing and his ability to capture detailed drone and video footage. Recently, Conley was named Grand Marshal of the Owensboro-Daviess County Veterans Day Parade after gaining popularity across the Owensboro community, not just for his running ability, but for the cause for which he runs.
“Me personally, I don’t think I deserve to be a Grand Marshal of anything,” Conley said. “I tried to get Gold Star families to ride in the car and the whole run team is going to walk with me alongside the car. That’s what this parade ought to be about — their sacrifice is incredible.”
Conley said he has had the opportunity to meet several Gold Star families this year that lost a family member through military service or suicide, and many are still grieving that loss. These families became the driving force for him to not only run, but to involve the community in his efforts, as well.
Last year, Conley’s wife, Donna, and Honor and Remember of Kentucky Director, Leslie Byrne McCarty, asked Conley to shoot video for the organization when the National Run for the Fallen came through Owensboro.
“I was just overwhelmed by the greatness of the whole thing,” Conley said. “I was always the guy that stood in the background, but with my involvement with Honor and Remember, I found a reason to run again.”
Conley said he has vivid memories of sitting on a truck tailgate during the 2018 run telling others that he would actually be participating by running this year. On the weekend of Sept. 7, 2019, Conley not only participated, he, along with McCarty, spearheaded a 109-mile Kentucky Run for the Fallen from Owensboro to South Hopkinsville.
With America’s Run for the Fallen as their model, the two organized the tribute event in which runners covered specific miles for each Kentucky Fallen Service Member who died as a result of serving (from any circumstance) during the War on Terror. Conley said the planning for the 109-mile run began in January and took nine months to complete.
“When you are planning a 109-mile race, your entire team is organic and is moving with you,” Conley said. “There are families to feed, and you have to make sure the Gold Star families are at the right markers. This year we had the right people in the right places.”
Already looking to 2020, Conley said the next race will be much easier to plan, as the route has previously been marked and the markers are already in place. It might come as a surprise to some that a guy who once voiced a distaste for running is not only planning a second Kentucky race, but now considers himself an “ultramarathon” runner. Currently, Conley is training for two races in early and late spring, a 50K and a 50-miler.
“I’ve always hated running,” Conley said. “If you’re going to get me to run, I’m going to run for something — I’ve found something to run for. These fallen heroes and Gold Star families drive me. They saved me from me.”
Conley, an 8-year Army veteran with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Infantry Division, was deployed to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Panama and did two tours in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) in Korea.
“I really struggled with PTSD for years and years,” Conley said. “When I got out of the military, I had lots of plans — but plans are one thing, reality is another.”
While Conley said he has certainly found joy in life with an incredibly supportive wife and three sons, two of which are currently serving in the Army National Guard, he has never felt quite like himself since leaving active duty.
“I’ve always struggled with who I am,” Conley said. “In my heart, I’ve always been a warrior, but I couldn’t find any warrior stuff to do. Running for these Gold Star families, I’ve found a way to be a warrior again — I’ve got a purpose now.”