MARINE CORPS AIR STATION KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii — Two cardiac episodes saved U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Frank Dugger's life.
The first one struck him while he was deployed to Afghanistan in September 2009. Dugger, the maintenance control chief for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, was medically evacuated to Germany, cleared and returned to his unit.
A month later, he felt it again. The blocked arteries caused a feeling "like I was being hit in the chest with a hot knife.”
This couldn’t be the end, he thought. “This isn’t the way I’m going to go … not here.”
On Halloween, Dugger returned home to Hawaii. Though he was safely reunited with family, his doctor shared a somber outlook on Dugger’s future.
“Either you change your life or in 10 years you’ll be back on my table and I’ll do it for you,” the doctor said. The health concerns shook the salty gunny.
“That was my turning point … it scared the crap out of me,” said Dugger, a 41-year-old raised in Tallahassee, Fla.
Cpl. Dustin Pursley, a Marine serving under Dugger, noticed a change in his boss.
“Gunny stopped being a hard-ass and became caring and compassionate,” said Pursley, a material control expeditor and 24-year-old from Loudonville, Ohio. “He focused on guiding me to where I needed to go. He was very supportive and always there when I needed him."
The event shifted Dugger’s demeanor but also morphed his lifestyle. He quit drinking, began eating more healthily and decided to complete an Ironman triathlon.
In the past, Dugger had run marathons. Though he was passionate about them, his energy waned over time. He tried to reconnect but was bored with simply running. Since he loved to swim and bike, he set his sights on a triathlon.
“They seemed like a myth; an unconquerable 800 pound gorilla,” he said. “I thought, ‘Triathletes must be nuts’ … and decided to try one.”
Dugger’s wife, previously an avid marathoner and triathlete, was his motivation — and his sanity check. “Let’s make sure you don’t have a heart attack first,” she cautioned him.
In January 2010, he began training for an Ironman triathlon in Cozumel, Mexico, in November. Within a year, Dugger said with a smile, he went from “being ready to die” to completing the race. In total, he’s completed nine marathons and 30 triathlons.
The following month, he began job-specific training in Pensacola, Fla. During a practice bike ride, he was hit by a car and sustained severe injuries to his left shoulder. His recovery took a year. Though he couldn’t train, he determinedly set out to fix several issues he’d encountered with his racing gear.
Dugger always ran with an MP3 player but had never found headphones that didn’t tangle and pull out of his ears. Frustrated, he set out to solve the problem by employing a belief he frequently shared with younger Marines — “one size doesn’t fit all.”
“The incubator of failure is going by the way everyone’s always done it,” he said. “If something doesn’t work, don’t accept it. Identify the need, solve the problem and move on.”
After two hours of fiddling and soldering, he created his first prototype of shorter, waterproof headphones with offset ear buds. Later, he combined several types of fabric and designed a pair of running socks that, for the first time, “did everything I wanted socks to do.” Elastic laces that eliminated pressure on a runner’s feet soon followed. A passion was born.
Dugger created iRun International, LLC, and began securing trademarks and patents for his products. He designed packaging and located manufacturers using contacts he’d gained while previously owning a dive shop in Hawaii. Soon, he had distributors locally and in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. Though he lacked formal schooling, his side business began growing.
“I determined I didn’t necessarily need a degree to be successful,” he said. “I was willing to go out and try; to be mentored and walked through business processes through the contacts I’ve made. This brought me across people I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet.”
Owning his own business has also enabled Dugger to honor the lives of his parents, whom are both cancer survivors. He regularly works with numerous charitable cancer and disease foundations by volunteering at events and donating iRun products.
While Dugger’s budding business takes up much of his off-duty time, his workdays are filled by a demanding set of duties within HMH-463. Drawing on 13 years of experience in maintenance control, he helps coordinate and supervise the production of seven divisions and 210 Marines working in the squadron’s maintenance department.
“This job is why I’m so gray,” he joked. “It’s sort of like building a house of cards every morning and watching it get blown down by the end of the day.”
Though he isn’t turning wrenches, he describes his role as the “break glass in case of emergency guy.” He’s responsible for the maintenance of the squadron’s 10 aircraft — assets valuing $400 million. He’s also assisting in his squadron’s conversion from CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters to the newer, larger CH-53E Super Stallions.
Dugger said juggling both jobs and family life — including infant twins — is difficult and time consuming. On several occasions, his service as a Marine has trumped his business plans. In spite of this, he’s deliberately chosen to continue this service.
“Financially, I’m independent … I’m still serving because of the young Marines,” he said. “Once you’ve learned something with experience, you have the burden of sharing this knowledge.”
Dugger’s impact on his Marines has expanded beyond the professional sphere. When Sgt. Ben Davis’ brother died in 2009, Dugger quickly offered to help his younger Marine pay for a plane ticket home.
“Gunny’s a great leader and he’s knowledgeable about his job, but he also takes care of his Marines,” said Davis, a CH-53E crew chief and 25-year-old native of Sachse, Texas. “He showed me he cared … that’s something I’ll never forget.”
While the competing interests in Dugger’s life make his days busy, he’s quick to note his “exit is a lot closer than the entrance.” Next summer, he’ll retire to Honolulu after 20 years of service.
Though his Marine Corps career is coming to a close, he’s not short on ideas and busyness for his future. In the least, a challenge will be only a triathlon away.