This MCM runner’s family fought in the military; she fights against COVID-19

Jessica Dalton turns 33 Sunday, so she’s looking to run 33 miles on Saturday. (Courtesy Jessica Dalton)

Jessica Dalton, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, loves to run the Marine Corps Marathon as a way to honor the military, which runs deep in her family.

“My entire family has been serving in the military,” Dalton, 32, said on a Zoom call. “Both my grandfathers, my father, my aunt and my uncle have served.”

Dalton still has the dress blues her grandfather earned while serving in World War II, and has thumbed through the diary he kept while serving overseas — including when he stormed the beach in Normandy, France.

The writing isn’t the cleanest, and it’s not more than a line or two each day: The entry for June 6, 1944, says “d. day (This is it),” then something like “Left … early in the morning for France with American troops.” It’s hard to tell.

The words on June 7 are even tougher to read, but say something to the effect of “not much enemy aircraft … lots of anti-aircraft fire.” He’s been dead for more than 30 years, so she can’t really get him to elaborate much now. But the words still move her.

“I’m actually surprised … that he didn’t really write about the death and destruction,” she said. “I wish that there was more lines in this diary for him to really explain everything but I’m sure at the time he didn’t understand the importance of Normandy on D-Day.”

She would have followed in her family’s footsteps and joined up herself, except she’s considered disabled: “I’ve suffered a lot of health problems so I would never pass the physical to get into the military.”

Still, Dalton has battled for her community, especially over the last 18 months. She’s a critical care nurse, and, even with a compromised immune system, she’s gone into a hospital every day, working to help others survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

All those stories you’ve heard about tired, frustrated, stressed-out medical professionals apply to her. Ask her to explain it and she needs a long, deep breath to gather her thoughts and her emotions.

“It’s hard,” she admitted. Dalton has been a critical care nurse for 10 years. “I’ve seen a lot of death and dying but it’s never been to this magnitude,” she said. “And it’s not necessarily just someone dying, but it’s actually seeing the progression of them coming to my unit and being able to talk. And learning about them. And then see the decline.”

“Caring for someone, and then listening to their family and the conversations that they have — it makes it so much more difficult,” she said. “It’s been a struggle to see the pain and suffering in people’s death from COVID. A lot of us, including myself, have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently I had to get treatment because of the horrors and things that we’ve seen and had to deal with physically and emotionally.”

Still, her love of people, and the chance to care for others, was a driving force to go to work every day. When someone got better, “It just made everything, all the sacrifices, just worth it. But it was also frightening.”

When you’re on immunosuppressant medication every day, working next to the sickest COVID patients puts your life at jeopardy, even when you’re young, vibrant, and otherwise in good physical shape. Grinding through mile after mile in your off time might not be at the top of your list once you leave for the day, and Dalton admitted it’s sometimes hard to find the motivation.

But she found it anyway.

“You always have to have something to look forward to,” she said, quoting her grandmother. “So during the pandemic, I had to find that — ‘Why do I run? What’s my purpose?’ Even though I give back to my community, I felt the need to give back financially also. I ran an ultramarathon to raise money for cancer. Then some of my co-workers and I raised money for our hospital’s COVID fund, to help families financially pay for their loved one’s bills. That motivation is what kept me going.”

She said her uncle is among the 700,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19.

“Sometimes I’ll be out running and then it just hits me, some of the losses that I’ve personally suffered,” Dalton said. “So it wasn’t uncommon for me to be on the side of the road crying, because you just have that time to deal with the emotion.”

Dalton was looking forward to coming back to D.C. again for her sixth MCM, including last year’s virtual event, before the decision was made to make the race virtual again. Dalton called that move “devastating,” but a year and a half of a pandemic hasn’t stopped her yet, and it wasn’t going to kill her race this year either. In fact, to some extent, it made things easier.

Dalton turns 33 Oct. 31, the day the race was supposed to happen and the day she’ll compete virtually by lacing up her shoes and running around Allentown. And since her life didn’t stop at 26.2 years, she’s not going to stop running at 26.2 miles.

“I’m planning on running 33 miles, for each year of life on my birthday,” Dalton said. “That was my original plan. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, running the 26.2 and then adding the additional miles. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do that in D.C. or back home. Now I’m able to do all the miles all at once.”

She also hopes her run will help some of Allentown’s animal shelters, either with cash donations from people or even through pet food donations she can collect on her route.

“Hopefully people won’t buy 40-pound bags of dog food, but I’d be able to pick it up along the route,” she promised.

And since it is Halloween, she’ll also be running in costume, with plans to dress up like Medusa since she’s a lover of snakes.

But if you happen to see Medusa running around Allentown that day, look closely at her back when she runs past — she’ll also have pictures of all her relatives who have served pinned to her back, something she does when she’s running to honor the military “so they’re with me physically and emotionally.”

Last month she ran in a race to honor fallen soldiers at Fort Indiantown Gap, north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and where her grandfather who served in the Korean War is buried. She even won her age group.

“It was like divine intervention,” she said. “Here you go, this is what you should do now. So that was really nice to be able to do that.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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