ARSENAL ISLAND — U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Shannon Lepley is often stopped while wearing her uniform around town. She’ll be in the grocery store, or at a park, where someone will approach and thank her for her service.
Lepley, a tall woman with a bright smile, deeply appreciates the gratitude. But after being thanked, she tends to do something that surprises her interlocutors.
She thanks them back.
“It takes people here in the states to run things while we’re overseas. Everyone’s jobs here is just as important,” said Lepley, a single-parent who lives in Bettendorf with her son.
“No one person won a war. It takes a whole community, a whole family — that’s what the United States is.”
For a woman who has already given so much — she’s been deployed to the Middle East eight times — Lepley leaps at opportunities to give back to her adopted home, the Quad-Cities, where she’s lived for about four years.
One source of her love for the community is today's Freedom Run, an annual military-themed race in East Moline.
Lepley, who works in the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Sustainment Command, heard about the race informally through some friendly folks who were telling her about things to do around town. She and her 8-year-old son Jaden have participated every year — Jaden as a runner and his mother as a walker.
Lepley's son is a versatile athlete, as adept at running 5Ks as he is climbing tall trees. By contrast, his mother jokes that she only runs "because they tell me I have to." Her career however helps keep her in top shape.
The Army is phasing in a new fitness test, a mini-marathon of physical prowess that requires speed, strength and stamina.
On the Arsenal, running is part of the island's identity, a necessity of both physical and mental wellness. Runners work out their body and declutter their mind. A central wall in the Arsenal Fitness Center displays images of popular running routes. The center's website features more than a dozen "jogging maps."
Local races like the Freedom Run fill a community need, offering a relaxed yet still physically challenging way for service members to train.
“Being able to do something that’s military-oriented but civilian-based is fun and unique,” Lepley said. “You can’t get it at other [military] installations.”
Funds to the USO support around a dozen military families in need, said Jackie Inman, Rock Island Center director at USO of Illinois.
"It's a huge impact," Inman said. She explained how military personnel in need can apply to receive up to $500 in funds to pay for utility bills, mortgage dues, flood damage and more.
Joe Moreno, race director and founder, started the Freedom Run seven years ago because he “knew there was a need for our local military families,” as he said in a recent interview. In addition, he said, "it’s a lot of people who’ve never been in the military who just want to support it.”
Moreno said that he expected about 1,400 runners to participate and that past years have generated around $12,000 in donations.
“It’s going to an outstanding cause,” Lepley said about funds from the Freedom Run. “The profits they’re making are going back to fellow veterans who need it: assistance with education, or with housing, or as simple as they’ve fallen on hard times and will need help paying a bill.”
The race has volunteer roles for military personnel and veterans, including handing out medals and dogtags for participants. “It’s our way as active duty to thank you for supporting this great event,” Lepley said.
A military brat herself, Lepley balances two challenging and, at times, conflicting identities: single-parent and active-duty servicewoman.
Since her son was born she’s been deployed three times. During deployments he stays with his grandparents, also veterans, in Georgia.
The Freedom Run represents a way to bridge her two halves, civilian and military. On the racecourse, she’s not just a 1st Sgt. or a mother — she’s both.
“The Quad-Cities communities has such open arms it’s sometimes staggering,” Lepley said.
Sure, she joked, on wicked cold days when the thermostat falls below zero, she’ll dream about life in a warmer climate.
But in truth she has no doubts about her family’s place in the Quad-Cities.
“If I could, I’d retire here. This community has opened their hearts and arms to us completely,” Lepley said. “It’s wonderful.”