A Soldier Ahead

August 25, 2008

This article was in Military Officer Magazine, August 2008. You can view the published article and photo here: A Soldier Ahead: MOAA (Set the “zoom” to 120).

They had to cut quite a bit of the original interview to fit the column space, so I’ve added the original version of the article below.


“A Soldier Ahead”

by Perry P. Perkins

In 490 B.C. the soldier Pheidippides ran from a battlefield outside the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides delivered the momentous message “Niki!” (victory), then collapsed and died.

This was to become the inspiration for the Marathon.

Today, two and a half miles have been added to the marathon. Unlike, Pheidippides, who, after shedding his packed gear, still wore up to forty-eight pounds in weapons and uniform, the average marathon walker does it in nylon shorts, tank tops, and running shoes, with a total average weight of three pounds, usually finishing in less than eight hours.

Lt. Van Allen Zallee did his 26.2 in under seven hours, wearing ACU’s, boots, and his standard EIB Ruck (35 lbs.) for the 2007 Portland Marathon, (named by Runner’s World “as the most walker-friendly marathon in the US“) to let people know that The Guard was here, doing the job of keeping Americans free and safe.

Keeping pace with 1700 civilian walkers, Lt. Zallee was the only man in uniform.

While planning to go to Ranger school in the fall of 2007 I was doing a twelve-mile road march every month,” said Zallee, “then, when I found out I wasn’t going, I thought I could use all these road marches toward a cause.  I thought it would be good to raise money for the Oregon Guard Emergency relief fund.  I also wanted to bring attention to the fact that the guard is always training.”

Unlike Big Army, the majority of the 6500 Guard members in Oregon don’t get paid to do their physical training.  They get up early anyway, before heading off to their jobs, to run, hit the gym, and keep themselves physically prepared. 

A Guardsmen’s training starts long before they get the call to go somewhere,” says Zallee, “it starts years before.  I wanted people to see the Guard out there working, sweating, and pushing themselves to be better.”

When I asked Van if the marathon had been as hard as he had thought it would be, he replied, “I thought it wouldn’t be too bad, since I had walked it before without a ruck and I had been doing twelve’s for months, but my legs said ‘we’re done’ at mile thirteen.”

“The last 14 miles were hell.  I was hurting the whole way. I had a friend with me, and he asked me at one point, how I was doing. I told him, “every step hurts.” He asked if I could make it, and I told him, I had no choice. At that point so many people had encouraged me and shared with me that I couldn’t stop.”

Mothers came up to Lt. Zallee along the route, giving him hugs telling him about their boys over in the box. Grandmothers cried as they hugged him, thanking him for serving.

When they asked why he was doing this, Van replied that it was to let people know that the Guard was out there training.  “We always are,” he told them, “sometimes you just don’t know that the guy running through your neighborhood before dawn is running to stay at his best for the next call to serve and defend.”

Another mile would pass and someone would ask how much his ruck weighed, then a few seconds later, you would hear, “but…why?” Then, he would tell them the same thing he’d said fifteen minutes earlier, “To let you know the Guard is out here training for you ma’am.”

When you walk a marathon you start with thousands and soon end up in a small group, all keeping the same pace. 


Faces and names that became friends by the end of the day.

Flo gave him salt at mile 18. Walter, a Viet Nam Veteran, kept crying out, “You can do it Ranger!” And even though, as Walter put it, he “hadn’t worn a pair of Uncle Sam boots” for two decades, they were brothers that day.

Resting at the finish line, stretching his legs and rubbing shoulders that had supported his pack for the last seven hours and twenty-six miles, several walkers came up to Zallee and thanked him, telling him that they’d wanted to give up, when their legs ached and their feet burned with blisters, but as long as they could see “that soldier” ahead, they knew they could make it.

At that point,” Zallee laughs, “I was just really happy that I didn’t quit.”

Military historian Edward S. Creasy, in his classic book, “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World“, wrote:

“The day of Marathon is the critical epoch in the history of the two nations. It broke forever the spell of Persian invincibility, which had previously paralyzed men’s minds.”

Now, as we find ourselves in another “epoch” battle, it’s more important than ever that the men and women of America (and the world) know that the Guard is here, that it’s prepared, and that it’s ready and able to fight for their freedom…

That there will always be a soldier ahead. 


Van Allan Zallee (2LT. OR ARNG) first served in the US Army 25th IN. Div from 1991 to 1994.

Eleven years later, he renounced his VA Disability to join the Guard and attend OCS.  He is now Platoon leader in Det 1 B Co. 1-186, 41st BDG, Oregon Army National Guard.  Zallee has a wonderful wife who supports his career, and three daughters ages six, three, and seven weeks.

The 41st BGD is schedule for duty in Iraq in June of 2009


Author Perry P. Perkins was born and raised in Oregon.  His novels include Just Past Oysterville, and Shoalwater Voices. Perry is a student of Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild and a frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies.

Perry’s work can be found online at www.perryperkinsbooks.com



  1. […] Title: A Soldier Ahead […]

  2. Van Rocks! I’ve known him for about 15 years, and I’ve never met anyone else about whom I thought “There’s a soldier if I’ve ever seen one.”

    Van I’m proud of you, not just for the marathon, but because of who you are. You are an inspiration to everyone around you! If America ever gets attacked, on our own soil, God have mercy on any enemies you come in contact with.

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