Brian Butlzer is out for a run. It’s nighttime and everything is as calm as can be. All he can hear are his footsteps on the pavement.
As he gets closer to a gate on the road, he sees some of his comrades running toward him. They begin to yell, “Run, run, run!” His comrades have discovered a car bomb that is about to explode.
Like a flash, he takes off into the night, just as he’s done plenty of times before.
Although it turned it there was no bomb, it’s moments like this that remind the U.S. Army staff sgt. and Warhawk track and field runner Butzler of the many times he’s sprinted to the finish line at the end of a race.
Many might take a moment like that as a life-changing experience. For 27-year-old Butzler, this was just another
day for the eight-year Army veteran.
The Beloit native spent 11 months (February 2009-January 2010) at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan dealing with these kinds of situations. Butzler, who was an NCAA Division III All-American in 2006 and 2007, pounded out nearly 1,900 miles during his stay.
Every day he ran, he did so knowing it might be the last time he enjoyed his favorite pastime.
“I actually had someone draw [a weapon] on me, even though he didn’t have much of a shot since he was 400-500 yards away,” Butzler said. “You come to the realization that if it happens, it’s going to happen, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
The local Afghanis weren’t the only thing Butzler had to worry about. He also had to deal with the mines that littered Bagram, an after-affect from the Soviet Union’s war with Afghani rebels in the 1980s.
“We weren’t allowed to run on the grass, or anywhere there wasn’t black pavement,” Butzler said.
For someone who stands 5 foot 7 and weighs 125 pounds, running meant more than being in shape and taking part in races.
“Running is my stress reliever,” Butzler said. “You’ve got time to think. It just gets everything out.”
Although Butzler enjoyed running as his “alone time,” he was busy almost all day with the work he did for 826 Ordinance Company out of Madison.While serving in Afghanistan, Butzler was a platoon sergeant in charge of 32 men.
“We handled all of the ammunition that came into Afghanistan,” Butzler said. “Our unit was in charge of supplying, distributing and also collecting all the ammunition.”
Throughout all of the turmoil he faced, Butzler had two things that were always there for him: a loving family and a supportive fiancé.
Whenever Butzler was down or frustrated with his work in Afghanistan, he always had two parents and six siblings to help him get through the turbulent times.
“Being away for so long taught me not to take anything for granted,” Butzler said. “Through the hard times I’ve faced, I’ve learned what matters to me the most, and that’s family and friends.”
Butzler didn’t experience the hard times only in Afghanistan. After leaving UW-Oshkosh, which he attended for a semester in December 2001,Butzler remained in a state of limbo even after he joined the Army Reserves Nov. 24, 2002.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Butzler joined the military to become a firefighter. However, since firefighter jobs were scarce, he worked a construction job along with being a member of the Army.
“I never received a call back for any of the firefighter jobs I applied for, so I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life,” Butzler. “I like being around children, so I decided I was going to become a teacher.”
Butzler arrived at UW-Whitewater in Fall 2005, and declared himself an elementary education major. One of the first women he noticed on campus was Ashley Pick, who was a part of the track and cross country teams.
Butzler and Pick started dating in 2006 and were able to connect through running. Nearly five years later, running is something they still share.
“Brian and I were able to see each other every day at practice, and that’s something we had in common,” Pick said. “He’s made me a better runner since we started dating because he’s so good, and that made me want to be better.”
Butzler proposed to 24-year-old Pick on Christmas Day 2008, and she accepted despite knowing they were to be separated when Butzler was scheduled to leave for Fort Hood in early January.
“Whether or not I had a ring, it didn’t matter … we were going to be together,” Pick said.
Although many relationships crumble when either the man or the woman gets deployed overseas, Butzler said their relationship was strengthened while he was away.
“Fortunately for me there was Internet in my barracks, so I immediately downloaded Skype,” Butzler said. “Having that face-to-face contact was vital for our relationship.”
Pick said she and Butzler were able to talk to each other nearly every day, and that was huge for their relationship.
“It was very comforting being able to see him,” Pick said. “You’re not able to touch each other, but you’re able to see each other.”
Butzler and Pick now live with each other in Waukesha, and are putting the final touches on the planning process for their wedding. The two are set to wed Oct. 2 at Pick’s Church in Cedarville, Ill.
“I’m so excited for the day,” Pick said. “Although planning has been long and frustrating, that’s the fun part, and I can’t wait for the day to be here.”
Looking to Win Championships
In the 11 months Butzler spent in Afghanistan, he was challenged to races by runners from many different divisions of the armed forces. Despite the diverse competition he faced, Butzler never lost a race.
Butzler was aided overseas by assistant cross country coach Matt Dollings, who gave him all of his workouts when he was in Afghanistan.
“I wrote the workouts for him when he was over there and that continued when he got back to the States,” Dollings said.
Butzler holds numerous Warhawk track and field records, including indoor mile (4:08.73), 1,500 meters (3:47.93), indoor 4×400 relay (3:19) and 4×800 relay (7:40.08).
He also runs for the Army cross country world team, having placed 39th at the World Military Cross Country Championships in Belgium in March. Butzler finished with a 14:16 5k time, racing against a world-class field.
Now that he’s back home, Butzler has his sights set on even bigger things than what he accomplished in the past for the Warhawks.
“I’m ready,” Butzler said. “It’s been about three years since I competed, but I’m going to be at my best. I have a great feeling I’m going to be a lot better than where I was when I left.”
Butzler said his goal is to qualify in the distance medley relay, the 5k and the mile run at nationals and hopefully win all three while simultaneously winning the NCAA indoor team title in the spring.
“If I don’t get there, then it wasn’t meant to be,” Butzler said. “I want to be a national champion, but it’s definitely not the only thing in my life. I’m starting a new chapter with my family and they’re more important to me than anything.”
One can bet they will be cheering him on, with every step he takes on the track and every step he takes in his life.