William "Billy" DeWalt felt helpless and scared when a petit mal seizure would grip him more than 10 times a day, leaving him completely immobile but still able to hear everything around him.
Ten years of military service left him with depression and an anxiety disorder. A traumatic brain injury, which forced him to leave the military when he was 28, resulted in memory retention problems and seizures.
He felt like no one could help him readjust to civilian life, and it was nearly impossible to get into a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center for the care he needed.
"I was mad," said DeWalt, who turns 40 this month. "I gave all I had as a soldier and felt discarded after my injury and unimportant. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I kept moving forward to provide for my kids as best I could."
Now, more than 10 years later, DeWalt runs to ensure that no one else will feel the same way he did.
He is running his 19th half-marathon Sunday, March 13, to continue his mission of raising money for local veterans organizations and to raise awareness of the difficulties they encounter after leaving the military.
He's running in the GNC Half-Marathon, which is part of the annual Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary. The event, which also features the Allscripts Marathon, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable organizations, including the Wounded Warrior Project.
Organizers expect about 4,000 runners, 500 volunteers and 8,000 spectators to attend the event, now in its seventh year.
A rocky transition
DeWalt, a Wake Forest resident, served in the U.S. Army from 1994 to 2004 as an airborne medic. He was stationed in Germany and Fort Bragg with assignments in the 82nd Airborne and 1st Infantry Divisions.
After an accumulation of head injuries resulted in his traumatic brain injury, DeWalt attended ECPI University and earned a degree in network administration and security management. He not only had to readjust to civilian life but he had to go to college and raise a family at the same time because he joined the military when he was 18.
"It was like one day I was in the Army, and the next day I was a civilian. That was it," he said.
This difficult transition, plus the side effects from his brain injury, caused DeWalt to jump between several jobs in different industries.
DeWalt now is a project manager in the healthcare industry. He also is a board member with the Military and Veterans Resource Coalition, a local nonprofit that seeks to connect service members and veterans with organizations that provide medical care and other aid. He also is a member of Team Red, White and Blue, which gets veterans involved in their community through physical and social activities.
He said he sympathizes with those who must readjust to civilian life after leaving the military.
"When I got out in 2004, there wasn't really anybody there to help me at all," he said. "I kind of figured it out in my own way to get to where I am today. I want to try to help other veterans not have to go through all the stumbling points that I had to get through myself."
Running for cause
DeWalt, the father of five children who are 7 to 20, hasn't had a seizure in eight years.
He believes running played a role in his improved health.
"It burned off my anxious energy," he said. "It helped me focus on what I needed to do throughout the day."
It also has given him a sense of purpose.
His goal is to run 15 half-marathons this year, including Sunday's event. This year alone, he's raised about $1,500 for MVRC and Team Red, White and Blue. He participated in last year's Race 13.1 half-marathon in Durham, which he completed with a stress fracture.
"For that race, we raised $400," he said. "I said even if I have to crawl in, I have to do this race."
Sunday, he is raising money for veterans causes through more than just his race registration.
For each mile he runs, DeWalt and other runners with Team Red, White and Blue will earn money toward their organization.
Money donated directly by family, friends and others will go to the MVRC. Those contributions go directly into an emergency fund for veterans in need.
"We use that fund in a kind of pay-it-forward mentality," said Erin Timmermans, MVRC's interim board chairwoman. "So the veteran is asked to either pay us back or pay that money forward toward another veteran."
Timmermans said since DeWalt joined MVRC last year, he has become a dedicated "fundraising aficionado."
"If you think about the dollars that he has raised, he's just the catalyst for change that just continues to grow in our community," she said. "It just takes doing what you already do to make a difference, and I think that he is a fabulous example of how anyone can integrate that into their daily life."