'It has become something bigger than me': Why fitness trainer runs with American flag
When Mark Palmieri runs on forest preserve trails carrying a large American flag, he says he sees "massive positive emotion" from people he encounters.
Palmieri, who works as a fitness manager and trainer, is quick to point out that he has not served in the military, but works on many levels with those who have served or plan to serve.
"When people see me running with the flag, it's generally viewed as a beacon of hope."
And hope is something we need right now, he said. He explains that his main mission in running with the flag is to raise awareness for veteran suicide and to honor the fallen.
Part of Palmieri's job involves training men and women before they go into the military, and he also works with them when they return home, both physically and emotionally. He helped start Three Rangers Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to provide lifelong support for veterans and their families.
The organization is funded by private donations as well as by a for-profit spirits brand Three Rangers, a veteran-owned, small business which he helps run. The foundation provides veterans with access to professional mentors and other experts who help assist with transition.
Occasionally, Palmieri is on the trails, flag in hand, and is stopped and thanked for his service.
"I tell people that I work with veterans when they come home," said Palmieri, 36. "The suicide awareness component, as it relates to the military, is a big part of why I do this."
Palmieri, who hits the trails several times a week, says the Lake County Forest Preserves provide a perfect way to connect with nature and enjoy beautiful views.
"We are blessed to have such amazing preserves so close to our homes," he said. He added that he has connected with the wildlife as well. "I have found a bond with two sandhill cranes that take their morning walk around the same time each day," he said.
The meaning of his running ritual, often done at Singing Hills Forest Preserve in Round Lake, took on another meaning a couple months ago when the country was hit with COVID-19.
"There has been so much fear and loneliness since the virus hit. When people see me on the trails with the flag, it's a game changer," he said. Palmieri believes the flag is a good leader and a reminder to have perseverance.
"People are utilizing the preserves and trails more than ever before. Since mid-March, records have been set for forest preserve usage," said Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves.
"The preserves offer 206 miles of trails that support physical health, and beautiful views and vast open spaces to restore mental health and well-being," he said. "I appreciate all that Mark is doing to help others in need."
People often cheer when they see Palmieri running.
"It has become something bigger than me," said Palmieri, who is married with three children. He believes he is able to inspire others when he is running. "I am trying to motivate my community," he said.
Jordan Wagner, an executive assistant at the Lake County Forest Preserves, said she was moved when she saw Palmieri run by with the flag when the pandemic first began.
Coming from a military family, Wagner said, "Whenever I see the American flag, I always feel pride, unity, sacrifice and purpose."
Wagner took a few pictures of Palmieri running down the trail because she wanted to share the emotions she felt with her co-workers, knowing that some of them had served in the military. Wagner's supervisor said the powerful image brought tears to his eyes.
Palmieri said he has had discussions with many employees who maintain the forest preserves and is impressed with their dedication.
"It is apparent they have a passion for providing a quality experience to people who utilize the forest preserves for pleasure or fitness," he said.
Palmieri jokes that he did not enjoy running when he started this effort about eight years ago.
"I really liked hiking and rucking," he said. Rucking is a strength training technique often done in the military where backpacks are filled with weights. Palmieri utilizes rucking in his personal training business as well.
When he attended rucking events, he would often carry the flag. He said it brought a spiritual element that directly bonds with the symbolism of what the flag stands for.
"It's a blessing to live here in a free country and to be able to enjoy the beauty of nature in a forest preserve with your family," he said.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.