Rat Race runs in remembrance of GF native

Friday, June 3, 2016
The Rat Race 5K drew a throng of runners in 2015. The 2016 event will be held Saturday, June 18, starting at Green Forest High School. (Photo by David Bell/Carroll County News)

The Rat Race 5K in Green Forest is running on four years. The annual event is the city's way of honoring the sacrifice and legacy of Tommy Ratzlaff, a Green Forest native who gave his life while serving overseas as a U.S. Navy SEAL.

Julie Adams, Ratzlaff's sister, said Ratzlaff enlisted in the U.S. Navy immediately after graduating from Green Forest High School in 1995. By age 34, he had achieved the rank of Senior Chief and was a Naval Special Warfare Operator assigned to an East Coast-based special warfare unit, she said. While flying on board a Chinook helicopter in the Wardok province in Afghanistan, Ratzlaff and 30 service personnel, including 20 fellow members of the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, were shot down, Adams said.

"He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, Defense Meritorious Service Medal and the Purple Heart," she said. "Tommy was also awarded the Star of Military Valor, Canada's second highest military award for valor."

Jeff Adams, Ratzlaff's nephew, started the Rat Race in 2013 as a Berryville senior class capstone project along with classmates Ben Bradley, Mattie Armstrong and McKenna Gerster.

Jeff Adams said the idea came from attending the Adam Brown 5K Shamrock Run in Hot Springs, a race honoring the memory of U.S. Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Brown, who also lost his life in Afghanistan.

"We bounced around the idea for the Rat Race, and it really came from my mother's thinking out loud," Jeff Adams said.

The race honors not only Ratzlaff, he said, but also the other servicemen aboard the Extortion 17 Chinook who lost their lives.

The class of 1995 has taken over the race since its founding, he said. The Rat Race is now organized each year by a group of Ratzlaff's classmates, family and friends.

"It was nice to have the class of '95 take charge because we got to take a step back and let someone outside of the family have a lot of input on it," Jeff Adams said. "I do whatever I can to help them."

Julie Adams said the Rat Race features a 5K with pictures of each of the 31 fallen soldiers displayed every 1/10th of a mile. The top three male and female finishers will receive a trophy and a medal, she said, with all finishers receiving medals.

The Rat Race has added the Bart's Dog Jog, a 1-mile fun run and walk, this year, Julie Adams said. She said they named the event after Bart, a Navy SEAL war dog who was also on the helicopter.

"If a 5K is more than you are comfortable with, feel free to join the one mile walk with or without your four-legged friend," Julie Adams said.

The Rat Race will also host the Arkansas Fallen Heroes Memorial this year as well, she said.

Angela Beason, treasurer of the annual Arkansas Run for the Fallen nonprofit, said that the memorial features a flag for each solider who has died since Sept. 11, 2001. She said the traveling memorial was founded in October 2005 by Rob Hopper of Wynne, whose youngest son, Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Chase Hopper, lost his life in Iraq on Jan. 26, 2005.

Arkansas Run for the Fallen merged Hopper's program with their own to continue displaying the traveling flag field, Beason said, when Hopper became unable to do so on his own.

"Both of these programs, and the Rat Race, are about saying these people's names and making sure they are not forgotten. That's what's important," she said.

The Rat Race awards two scholarships of $1,500 to a Green Forest and Berryville senior through donations received, Julie Adams said. She said this year's recipients were Lupita Lopez of Green Forest and Oliver Perez of Berryville.

Julie Adams said the Rat Race also donates money to the Green Forest school district for a counseling program designed for children who have lost parents. Green Forest school counselors Becky Tharpe and Jonee Standlee organized the program, she said.

"Julie and her mom came to us with the idea for this program and asked our thoughts on it," Tharpe said. "I thought of about eight different kids off the top of my head who could benefit from it and said 'Yeah, we definitely have a need for that.' "

The idea came about, she said, because Ratzlaff's sons were elementary age when they lost their father, and Julie Adams felt that a grief program for children was a need in the community.

The counseling program averages about 30 kids, Tharpe said, and focuses on the hope rather than the grief. She said the group does activities together like movie nights, making memory boxes, balloon releases and field trips.

"It's all about showing a student that they're not the only one. There are other kids at the school that know how you're feeling. It's a support group really for the little kids all the way up to the big kids," Tharpe said.

Standlee agreed, adding that the program gives students a safe way to talk about what they're experiencing. Some kids even take what they learn home and discuss it with their families, she said.

"It's very powerful when you see 5-year-olds and 18-year-olds helping each other work through grief and realizing they're not alone," Standlee said.

Last year, the Rat Race donated $1,250 to the program, Tharpe said.

"We couldn't believe it. We had received $750 the first year and expected to get about the same this year. Thanks to Julie and her mom, our program is flourishing. We've been able to go on bigger trips, such as Dogwood Canyon, and have even saved a little money for future activities," she said.

Tharpe continued, "It's so neat to see the difference from last year to this year. Last year, the students were getting to know each other, but this year they started off feeling comfortable around each other. It's like a family."

Katie Smith, a second-grader in the group, said the program has helped her deal with the loss of her mom.

"Our group is really fun, and you can just be yourself. We have lots of fun times and get to spend time with each other and make new friends," she said.

Julie Adams said she could not brag on the Green Forest counselors enough.

"They have taken our idea and developed a phenomenal program," she said.

Jeff Adams said he is amazed to see how much the event has expanded since the first year.

"It started as a senior project, but it's become so much more," he said. "It's a beneficial event for the communities of both Green Forest and Berryville."

The Rat Race will take place at 8:06 a.m. Saturday, June 18, at Tiger Stadium in Green Forest.

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