Aaron Butler fought hard to be a part of the Utah National Guard team tasked with clearing Islamic State fighters from an Afghanistan village in 2017. This summer Butler’s former teammates will honor the Utah man, who was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated, with a Treasure Valley memorial race bearing his name.
The Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler Memorial Purple Heart Run, which takes place on Aug. 17 nearly two years to the day after Butler’s death, is a 10K or 5K trail run held at the Eagle Bike Park. Dan Nelson, a Boisean who led Butler’s battalion, and fellow Treasure Valley veteran Dan Muguira organized the event.
Fittingly, 10K participants will run along Veterans Trail, which follows the perimeter of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery.
“You’ll either be running under the shadow of the flag or looking down at it,” Nelson said.
Losing Aaron Butler
Nelson, 36, was one of the 11 soldiers wounded in the same blast that killed Butler.
“It basically changed a lot of lives,” he said. “We lost Aaron, and every one of my teammates was injured. I think the level and intensity of sacrifice was transformational for all of us.”
In August 2018, the first anniversary of Butler’s death, several of Nelson’s fellow Green Berets came to Idaho to mourn together. It was there that the idea for the race began to formulate.
“We drank and talked and cried about it and said, ‘We need to do something better, more positive than this,’ ” Nelson said. “’We can’t sit around like sad sacks all the time.’”
Nelson has known his co-organizer Muguira, a Marine Corps veteran who received a Purple Heart in 2005, since they were teens. Muguira never had a chance to meet Butler but said he feels a kinship to him, and he hopes others will, as well.
“I had an idea of what they went through to get where they got,” Muguira said. “It’s a brotherhood, arguably one of the stronger things I’ve ever been a part of.”
The event will benefit the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Nelson said his team earned 17 of the medals, given to those killed or wounded in action, in the space of five months. According to an article in the ArmyTimes, several members of the team also earned Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Army Commendations for Valor.
Ned Barker, commander of the chapter, said the proceeds will serve a vital need for the veterans’ organization.
“In the past, we have received funds from our National Foundation and our local rifle raffles to enable us to continue our charitable giving efforts,” Barker told the Statesman in an email. “The funds from the foundation have stopped due to their not raising enough to pass down, and the rifle raffle is getting stale. The (5K) will replace these sources with a much more community-friendly method to support our one and only mission, which is vets helping vets.”
Nelson said a race is a fitting tribute for Butler, a decorated high school wrestler and “total stud,” Nelson said.
“He was always a physical specimen, so we wanted to allow people to connect (with his memory) that way,” Nelson explained.
Participants can run, walk or “ruck” the race, which costs $30. The courses will feature photos and stories of Purple Heart recipients who were killed in action.
“Hopefully (participants) come away with the idea that a lot of what’s sometimes taken for granted, it comes off the back of those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Muguira said. “There are still a ton of guys and girls overseas that are fighting the good fight. It’s been going on for years and years, but it doesn’t make it less important to cherish them.”
According to Nelson, several of Butler’s family members as well as teammates from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group of the Utah National Guard will attend the race.
Nelson, who is still dealing with the aftermath of the severe concussion he incurred in the explosion, will be there alongside them all, no matter how difficult the race might be.
“I used to run ultramarathons, and the idea of a 5K on uneven terrain is intimidating,” Nelson said. “But we’ve got guys (from our company) who are double below-the-knee amputees, and they’re doing the 10K.”
About the ‘suck factor’
Their perseverance is in the spirit of Butler, with a nod to a military phrase that soldiers repeat when there’s not choice but to dig into a bad situation.
“Wondering if the ‘suck factor’ may be too high?” the race website says. “Ask yourself ... What would Aaron do? Embrace the suck!”
That’s exactly what Butler did in North Africa, where Nelson first met him, and later when the two worked together in Afghanistan.
“He desperately wanted the mission that we were getting (in Afghanistan),” Nelson said. “When he first wanted to come to the team I said no. He was so eager, I thought it might be a sign of immaturity. I was wrong.”
At 27, Butler was the youngest soldier on the team, but that was no hindrance.
“There’s a small group of people that thrive in immersed combat, and (Butler) was one of them,” Nelson said.
“Unfortunately, Butler was not the first soldier that I lost,” Nelson said. “But the circumstances are unique, and I hope people are interested in learning about him and people like him.”
▪ The Inaugural SSG Aaron Butler Memorial Purple Heart Run, 11800 Horseshoe Bend Way, Eagle, ID, 83616 on Saturday, Aug. 17. The 10K race begins at 8 a.m., and the 5K begins an hour later.
▪ Race profits go to the Idaho Department and Chief Joseph Chapter 509 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which offers support for local Purple Heart recipients.
▪ The race is open to all participants, not just military members or medal recipients, Nelson said. Those who don’t want to participate in the race can still attend and enjoy music, food, coffee and more.