Olathe & Southwest Joco

Make It Count race aims to ‘hand out some hope’ to veterans

From their Olathe home, Dale and Megan Duncan can hear the Chinook helicopters running training exercises out of the U.S. Army Reserve hangar at the New Century AirCenter.

It gives them comfort to hear the pulse of the rotors from the same type of aircraft their son, Spencer, flew in before he was killed in action in Afghanistan two years ago.

“It’s awesome, like our heartbeat,” said Megan. “That’s part of our hearts.”

Heartbeat. It’s a word that comes up again when they talk of the second annual Make It Count 5K, which will raise money for veterans as it honors Army Spec. Spencer Duncan’s sacrifice. In a way, Spencer’s heartbeat carries on, through the books and help that the race proceeds provide.

And this year, a half a world away in Afghanistan, an Army unit will be running its own Make It Count race. The driving force — or “heartbeat” of that effort, as Megan calls it — is another soldier named Duncan.

A door gunner, just as Spencer had been, A.J. Duncan learned of Spencer Duncan when he befriended Spencer’s buddy, Aubrey Thomasson, in Advanced Individual Training, Megan said. He went on to be the key organizer of the Afghanistan run.

Spencer Duncan was 21 when his Chinook was shot down Aug. 6, 2011. He was one of 30 American servicemen killed.

The Make It Count 5K, now in its second year, will begin at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 3 at the New Century AirCenter in Gardner. For a $25 registration fee, participants can run, get a T-shirt and have a closeup look at the double-rotor aircraft flown by Spencer’s unit. The registration fee increases to $30 after July 31.

If everything goes according to plan, participants also can make a connection with those servicemen running in Afghanistan. Dale Duncan said the plan is for a flag exchange between the two races. The Afghanistan unit would run its race a couple of weeks before the Olathe event, and soldiers there would sign an Army flag and send it over to be at the Olathe race. Olathe participants would do the same, sending their flag back to Afghanistan.

The money from the race will go into a foundation to help returning veterans. Last year, the money raised by 478 race participants and sponsors went to help homeless veterans through the Heart of America Stand Down Foundation. The race proceeds also bought books for 23 veterans through the Johnson County Community College Foundation.

About $21,000 was given out last year, and Dale Duncan said the event is on track to do at least that well again this year. Duncan said he would like to include veterans at more schools this time, as well as reach out to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Of course, that doesn’t replace a beloved son. But it does help the Duncans carry on his memory and his ethic of making every day count. “Make it count” was a phrase Dale Duncan said each day to his family before going to work and it was said the last time he spoke to his son.

It was a lesson Spencer embraced in his daily life, Megan said. “Spencer was a patriot from an early age,” she said. He was especially affected by the attack on the world Trade Center in 2001, when he was only 11 years old.

“He said, ‘This is the bully bringing the fight to our back yard, isn’t it? That’s not right, mom,’” Megan said.

He joined the military out of commitment to the freedoms of America, she said. It was a decision that caused worry, but ultimately, the Duncans supported it.

“As a parent you want your children to live in a bubble with puppies and clouds and a rainbow,” Megan said. But, “some people live their entire lives without a sense of purpose. Spencer, at the age of 21, had that. He did what he wanted to do and what he truly believed in,” she said.

“He was not a kid who sought out the limelight,” she said. In fact, Spencer would have been “terribly embarrassed” by the attention from the race. But the Duncans say Spencer would have come home to support his fellow veterans, just as they are trying to do with the foundation.

“Give one person hope and you can change their life. Change one person’s life and you can change the world,” she said. “We’re just trying to do that one veteran at a time.

“We’re just trying to hand out some hope.”