By Patrick Buffett, Fort Lee Public Affairs

FORT LEE, Va. – Two years ago, Shannon Western was a smiling wife, mother of five, college student, Army Reserve Soldier and government employee. When describing that time in her life, however, she uses words like “unhappy,” “frightened” and “overwhelmed.”

The Fort Lee Mission and Installation Contracting Command staffer said her cheerful outward persona belied an inward struggle fueled by domestic disputes that brought on bouts of depression. She had stopped caring about her health and what she was eating, which affected her weight and energy level.

“I didn’t think about what I was doing to myself; how I was resorting to food as a comfort item and how the alcohol I occasionally drank at night to wind down – or more like get away – was changing the chemical balance in my body,” Western recalled. “I used to work out religiously, but I had stopped doing that altogether. For a short time in 2013, I even took up smoking, which reduced the circulation of oxygen in my body and added to the issues of feeling tired and weighed down.”

The factors that pushed Western down a path of potential self-destruction are deeply personal and not something she’s comfortable talking about in detail. However, she eagerly shares the thought process she went through, and what she believes was divine influence, to “be set free.”

“It was this overwhelming realization I had to dig myself out from the oppressive life situation I was in,” she said. “A lot of things were contributing to the problem, so I had to deal with those first. I had to remind myself what was important – being there for my kids, not living in fear, not killing myself with an unhealthy lifestyle. I started a healing journey a lot bigger than simply getting back in shape or losing weight. I refused to be a victim and took my life back.”

The cost of a fresh start would be steep: ending her marriage, losing her home, giving up personal belongings, finding a stable place to live with her three biological children. Emotionally, “scared” and “alone” were daily companions, but she said she worked through it by pushing herself out of bed in the morning, holding God close to her heart and refusing to accept anything short of a positive, active and balanced lifestyle during her waking hours.

“Initially, it was pure survival mode, then it transitioned into recovery and, eventually, the growing confidence I needed to truthfully tell myself I had done the right thing and tomorrow will only be better,” said Western, who also found a woman 70 pounds lighter staring at her in the mirror four months after leaving her ex-husband.

“That’s when I started running and realized how much better it made me feel,” she continued. “It became a refuge away from the worry and emotional turmoil of fighting my ex-husband in court to protect my children. As the distances increased, it gave me a sense of accomplishment, so I began setting other goals like going back to school to complete my master’s degree. While I was at it, I also decided I was going to train even harder to run a marathon … why not, it’s a big world out there as I was slowly rediscovering.”

In 2014, Western was introduced to a running club called the Team Red, White and Blue Eagles. The veteran-based group was founded a little over five years ago with a mission to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.” The Richmond Chapter is headed by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Martin Steiner.

Last November, Western finished her first official 8K race with the running club. In April she completed her first half marathon, averaging a 9.03-minute mile to finish at 1:58:43.6 and placing 45th out of more than 430 females and 191st overall out of more than 830 race participants.

Encouraged by her accomplishments and motivated to pay-forward her rediscovered love of fitness, Western established a youth club called the Team Red White and Blue Little Eagles in September. The participants range from 3-to-17 years of age. She and the sponsoring organization – with 180-plus chapters across the country – recently partnered with Chesterfield County’s Healthy Children’s Program race series to organize an inaugural youth track meet.

“A big part of that effort (running the Little Eagles program) is introducing my own kids to a healthy lifestyle and doing something they can be proud of and look forward to week after week,” said Western who, not surprisingly, took a moment to do a bit of “mommy boasting.”

“My (15-year-old) step-daughter, Amber, is the assistant coach of the Little Eagles. She is a sophomore at Clover Hill High School and is on track to graduate at 17 so she can join the military to become a mortician. My 11-year-old daughter Danielle (from her first marriage) lives with me 10 months out of the year and is a member of the team. My oldest biological son Dylan is 7. We work through a lot with him because he is special needs and part of his treatment is physical activity, which is another important reason why I established the Little Eagles program. My youngest is Hunter, now 3 years old, who is on the team as well.”

Another milestone in Western’s journey occurred Oct. 10 when she completed her first marathon – the Freedoms Run in Shepherdstown, West Va. – in 4:44.50.

“I really hit my wall at mile 20,” she reminisced. “Up until then, I was averaging a 9:40 mile. There are some pretty steep inclines in West Virginia, and that slowed me down to an average 10:52 mile overall.”

Her next goal is to finish the Nov. 14 Richmond Marathon in four hours flat.

“This journey was about changing my life, and I think I can say I’ve accomplished that in many different ways,” Western observed. “Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the hardships that existed before are still there, but I’ve taken control of something that was seriously affecting my emotions, attitude and health.

“Now, I feel confident to serve, help, teach and love others without literally being weighed down physically and metaphorically,” she concluded. “I like the idea of inspiring others (through her youth running club and conversations on social media) as well. I’ve had several people tell me I’ve motivated them to start working out again … one of my close friend has lost over 35 pounds.

“Sometimes change isn’t easy, but I discovered it’s achievable if you remember what’s really important. The main thing is to remember to take care of ourselves first.”