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After their son died in battle, his parents found a purpose in helping other vets

On Saturday, Aug. 3, nearly 1,200 participants ran and walked to support veterans in need during the annual Spencer Duncan Make It Count 5K.
On Saturday, Aug. 3, nearly 1,200 participants ran and walked to support veterans in need during the annual Spencer Duncan Make It Count 5K. Special to The Olathe News

Megan and Dale Duncan woke on Aug. 6, 2011 to a day just like any other at their home in Olathe. But that evening, a single doorbell ring changed their stable lives.

“I opened the door and two soldiers were standing there,” Megan said. “One asked, ‘Are you the parents of Spencer Colson Duncan?’

“They’d come to deliver the news that our son, Spencer, had been killed in Afghanistan that day.”

An Olathe South graduate, Spencer Duncan served in the United States Army Reserves’ 7/158th Aviation Regiment as a Chinook helicopter mechanic. That day, he was among 38 people aboard a Chinook shot down by insurgents. All aboard the helicopter were killed, resulting in the single largest loss of life for United States forces since the war in Afghanistan had begun in October 2001.

“At first, we were numb and going through the motions of living,” Megan Duncan said. “Not living, just surviving.”

“At some point, Dale and I realized we still had a purpose and needed to do something productive. We made a very conscious decision to not let the sorrow of losing Spencer overshadow the joy of knowing Spencer.”

With emotional and spiritual sustenance from family and friends, the Duncans chose to step into their grief and transform it.

“We’d been looking forward to Spencer coming home soon, but he didn’t get to do that,” Megan Duncan said. “We couldn’t have him back, but we could help other veterans have that future.”

As they navigated their heartache the next few months, the Duncans developed a plan. They determined the path for their own healing would be to provide opportunities for veterans, so they could forge their own promising futures.

Less than a year after losing Spencer, they launched a nonprofit to honor their son. Since founding the Spencer Duncan Make It Count organization in 2012, the Duncans have raised and donated more than $550,000 to support three critical needs veterans face when returning from duty.

These funds provide education scholarships, treatment and healing for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and numerous initiatives to assist homeless veterans fulfill housing and other needs.

“There are so many people who want to help those who are hurting,” Dale Duncan said. “People want to give, and will give in a big way when given the chance to step up.

“I think about Spencer every day and miss him every day. I also want to honor him every day by finding a way to help one more person who is struggling. Helping others is part of our own healing journey.

“When we do this work, it allows us to keep walking when our hearts feel so empty.”

The foundation’s primary fundraising source is an annual 5K, the first of which took place in 2012, just one year after Spencer was killed. During this year’s event, held Aug. 3 at the New Century Airport in Gardner, nearly 1,200 participants, many accompanied by their favorite canine running partners, ran and walked to support veterans. A team of more than 100 volunteers organized and managed the race.

Megan Duncan says at the heart of their commitment to provide positive opportunities for veterans is a profound sense of responsibility to those who have served the country.

“We’re so accustomed to the freedom, we don’t remember the high price paid for it,” she said. “It’s not just the soldiers killed, but the people who come home broken that deserve and need to be honored with our help.”

Kirsten Vallinmäki, currently an officer in the Army Reserve, is among those who has benefited from the foundation. Recently, she attended a program that provides support for military personnel who have PTSD.

“Because of Megan and Dale Duncan, and the Spencer C. Duncan Make It Count Foundation, I had the opportunity to attend a five-day, holistic healing program at no cost,” she said.

“At the workshop, they taught me a myriad of methods that have helped me in managing the symptoms of my post-traumatic stress. Without their support, this opportunity wouldn’t have been available to me.”

Looking forward, the Duncans intend to continue growing their foundation, while staying focused on their current areas of concentration.

“There are so many vets who need help in so many ways, but we want to stay in our lane and make an impact in the areas where we already work,” Megan Duncan said.

“If you give one person hope, and change one person’s life, you’ve changed the world.”