by Shane Phillips, Guest Blogger and founder of Paws 4 PTSD

Riley Stephens

Before the Texas Beast, I told you about my best friend, my brother Riley Stephens who was killed in action serving his country in Afghanistan with the 1/3 Special Forces Group (Airborne) as a senior Medic.  One of the last things he did before his deployment was run a Spartan Race.  As a tribute, friends and family took on the Spartan Beast in Glen Rose as “Team Riley” to honor him and to reconnect.   I’ve been spending lots of time on how to express my feelings from the Spartan Beast race in Glen Rose, TX.  I have finally decided to just share those feelings with you.  The story will be raw in places, silly in others, and probably a little boring and mundane in the rest of this swirl of emotions.

Team Riley: Ken Stephens (Riley’s brother), Cody Watson, Jamie Gray, Jerry Snyder, Austin Harris, Brooks Goodson with Author Shane Phillips and Paws4PTSD service dog Hope.

I was nervous going to support Team Riley as they ran a race to honor SFC Riley Stephens who was killed in Wardak, Afghanistan in September of 2012. I’m not exactly sure why I was nervous.  I had my wife and kids with me.  I had Hope, my service dog, with me.  I knew the people we were going to support and their family that would be there too. I think I also felt a little guilty because I wasn’t running with them.  I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself to the team to honor our brother.

Coming into the area where the start/finish line was located we were signing in and I was afraid we’d miss the start of the race.  An unnamed worker with Spartan overheard why we were there and who we were there to support and it was like I was a VIP all of the sudden.  Ushered in I quickly found the guys in the holding pen waiting on the pep talk and start.

Hugs to my brothers and words of sarcasm and advice to cover what we were all thinking.  Or at least I was.  We’d rather be talking trash and hanging out with our brother, Riley. I was handed a Team Riley shirt and immediately put it on.  Just as the serious looks are exchanged as we all acknowledge the why of being here together the race announcer starts his talk.  I am unable to recall the exact words, but I do recall he made a point of letting everyone know exactly who Team Riley was and it was an honor to have them race.  I think that’s when the feelings started to change a little for me.  Here we all were, Team Riley, Mic (Riley’s father), my wife and kids, all the family members, and probably a couple of hundred strangers trying to stay warm in the blustering North wind.  I felt this collective respect given by everyone.

It’s a feeling you can relate to if you’ve ever truly had that physical struggle where you don’t think you can do it anymore and someone stronger gives you that look that says, “well done.”  It’s never a spoken thing and I think that’s why is so much more powerful than words could ever convey.  It’s almost magical in the sense of brotherhood and respect felt.

The next few hours for me consisted of Hope and I running cross-country observing the race and trying to catch Team Riley at obstacles to cheer them on.  Hope and I must have run 6 miles cross country that day.  She loved it! She ran beside me like it was the most natural thing on Earth to be doing.  At one point of trying to get back to the start/finish to help my wife this calmness came over me.  Here I was running through the Hill country in the middle of a huge race course with my service dog Hope happily running beside me.  I was breathing the cold fresh air.  I would occasionally cross paths with a racer or two and they would all give me a smile when they saw my Team Riley shirt.  While I observed the racers at obstacles I felt the same sense of respect and honor hung in the air even while they did burpees as punishment for a failed attempt. This familiar feeling of comfort and safety came over me.  That exact feeling I’d felt with Riley while we shot the bull.  The feeling I’d shared with my brothers down range between missions back in the day.  That feeling of… “Yes, this is hard, but we are here together.  And together we will overcome this. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard and worth doing.  If not worth it for the thing done, for the kindred spirits of my brothers and sisters who have suffered too.  It is worthy simply because of the men and women with whom we conquer it with.”

Team Riley did awesome.  Together they conquered the course.  The conquered their inner voices.  They conquered a little bit of a hurt known only to them.  How do I know this? Well, because some of that hurt was conquered during my cross country run with Hope.  You see, that sense, that feeling I’ve tried so hard to convey I believe was the spirit of Riley.  Not his soul, but that warrior spirit that has inhabited so many of us and is so very close to the ones who choose a warrior lifestyle and path to follow.

Team Riley, and even Hope and I, in a sense got to run with Riley.  Holding tight to that spirit of the warrior will keep our brother alive in each of us in our own way.  This spirit gives me the courage to be open about the inner turmoil that is me.  It gives peace in a way to his family and brothers and sisters of a little town in Texas.  We ran together again and I just can’t help but think how our friendship and path together started the same way.  We ran together around that football field so many years ago.  Only this time everyone ran with him, with us, sharing that warrior spirit no matter who you are or where you’re from.  It was simply amazing.

At the end of the race for Team Riley we were there to cheer them on.  They collected their breath and what was left of their strength.  Proudly and with smiles they charged the Spartans after leaping the fire, taking the pugal sticks away and capturing the moment in a way that Riley would be so proud of. They took what belonged to them.  There was no quarter given by either Team Riley or the Spartans as they claimed that true warrior spirit while seizing what was theirs.  A message to Riley that they too respect and revere the gift he left us.  The gift of knowing him in a way that few did; a man, a warrior, a brother.

Soon after the race the brothers and Mic and family gathered behind Mic’s truck.  Shots of Crown Royal were passed out and Mic held one for him and one for Riley.  Mic put me on the spot and asked me to do the honor of a toast.  We raised our shots and I toasted, “To the brothers who ran a race to honor the one who is no longer able.” Down the hatch our shots went, with a few teary eyes, and Riley’s shot poured out.  Not wasted, but given to the Earth, given to the field of battle in his honor.

 [Editor's Note: Team Riley took on our Glen Rose, TX Beast race on December 8, 2012.  They finished in honor of their brother, son, friend.  A big thank you for their gracious willingness to share their story and to Shane for his words that poignantly capture such an emotional journey.  Find Shane's non-profit organization Paws 4 PTSD on Facebook and online.]

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by Shane Phillips, Guest Blogger and founder of Paws 4 PTSD

It was hot.  The kind of Texas hot only felt during the hell that is known as two-a-days for Texas High School Football.  I have no idea how many laps Coach Bradford had already made us run.  All I know was I was bent over, vomiting, in a grassy area near the front of my high school in Tolar, TX.  I felt a pat on my back, or more accurately a heavy slap, and turned to look into the red face of a guy who resembled the human version of a tank.  He was as wide as he was tall and I seriously doubted he had more than 4% body fat.  He gave me this grin and said, “Don’t be a p***y”, then off he went gleefully running more laps.  I didn’t know it then, but I had just met Riley Stephens who would become one of my closest and dearest friends.  Who, throughout our friendship, became the one constant I could depend on no matter what I needed.  Guidance as a warrior, guidance on dealing with the demons we shared, a good laugh, and that particular sense of humor that anyone who ever had the chance to be around him had the privilege to know.

In 2010 I experienced my first Spartan race in Houston, TX with a team of people I had never met before.  If you’ve run a Spartan Sprint race you know just how much fun I had.  As time passed this experience was something I talked to Riley about and we’d planned on running a race together in Texas after his retirement from the military.  Among other plans we shared based on the timing of his retirement and deployments with the 1/3 Special Forces Group (Airborne) as a senior Medic.

In July 2011 one of those rare once or twice a decade events took place.  We were all in the same place at the same time.  To celebrate the 4th of July, Riley’s dad Mic hosted a party and we were all able to be there and celebrate our independence.  None knew it then, but that would be the last time we were all together to celebrate.  This picture is a toast in their honor during the party and the last picture I have of  Riley and I together. 

Time passes and most of us carried on with our jobs and deployments.  In the summer of 2012 Riley volunteered to go to Afghanistan with a team who needed a medic.  Just before he left Riley and his team he’d served several combat deployments with decided they’d give a Special Forces send off to their medic, their friend, their brother.  Riley and his team ran a Spartan Beast in South Carolina the week or so before his deployment.  Knowing Riley and the boys from his team I know they caused as much havoc as they could.  They even took the pugil sticks away from the Spartan warriors and made them fight to get them back.  That is definitely Riley!

After the race Riley told me just how much fun he’d had and how this type of race was perfect for guys like us.  He even enjoyed the hot girls giving medals and beer tickets! Riley was never one to not enjoy something like that!

On September 28th 2012 I received a phone call from Ken, Riley’s brother who also serves in the U.S. Army, that I’d prayed I’d never get.  Ken spoke directly, as is our custom, and relayed to me that our brother, my best friend, my hero, had been killed in Wardak, Afghanistan.

During the next days of learning his death was real and coming together as a huge family we laid our brother to rest on October 7th 2012 as close to a brother and best friend he’d lost in 2006, also in combat, as the National Cemetery in Dallas, TX would allow.

A group from high school got together and decided to run the Spartan Beast in Glen Rose, TX this December 8, 2012.  They all belong to the inner circle of “brothers” of our small town.  We all call Riley’s dad, Mic, “Dad.”  And for some of us blood makes no difference on the closeness of our bond.  “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” (William Shakespeare)

Team Riley will consist of: Jamie Gray, Cody Watson, Brooks Goodson, Austin Harris, Jerry Snyder, and Ken Stephens (Riley’s brother).

In closing, I want to remind you of this.  Those people sweating and cursing and bleeding with you on the course running under the name Team Riley aren’t running for themselves.  They aren’t even running for those like me who lost a brother too.  No, they will run for Riley.  They’ll suck it up and I know that each time they hesitate or grow tired they’ll hear in his sarcastic Texas drawl “Don’t be a p****y” and then smile and carry on.

[Editor's Note: We are proud and humbled to have Riley's story featured on our Spartan Race blog and for Shane's willingness to share the story.  To Riley's family and friends, we extend our sincerest condolences and deepest gratitude and look forward to their participation in our Glen Rose, TX Beast race on December 8, 2012.  Find Shane's non-profit organization Paws 4 PTSD on Facebook and online.]

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