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Stewart-Haas Racing remembers the fallen in ‘600 Miles of Remembrance’

Chase Elliott becomes the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series winner at Circuit of the Americas, as weather forces to race to be called after 55 of a 68 scheduled laps.

In the end, they’re just races. There are more important people than those that run them, and there are more important things than how they’re won or lost.

NASCAR knows - perhaps more so than any other American sport - that without those who serve and defend in the U.S. Armed Forces, there wouldn’t be races at all.

So, wherever it goes, there’s always an effort to appreciate and honor the military. Some gestures may be big. Some may be more modest. They all come from gratitude.

But the grandest of tributes comes Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race, becomes the ‘600 Miles of Remembrance.’ As part of it, all NASCAR Cup Series cars carry the name of a fallen service member on the windshield to honor the ultimate sacrifice that person made for our country.

This year, Stewart-Haas Racing will honor three soldiers who were part of SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser, the most highly decorated Special Operations unit during the Iraq War. It was also the unit where the late SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (of American Sniper fame) served.

The names of Master-At-Arms Second Class Michael A. Monsoor, Petty Officer Second Class Marc A. Lee, and Petty Officer Second Class Ryan C. Job will be carried on the cars of Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer, respectively.

The commander of Task Unit Bruiser, now-retired Navy SEAL officer Jocko Willink, is friends with the CEO of SHR sponsor Smithfield, Dennis Organ. Willink also operates a leadership consulting company called Echelon Front, which has worked extensively with Smithfield employees.

Through those connections, the initiative to honor Monsoor, Lee and Job for Sunday’s ‘600' was formed.

“We’ve had a great relationship with them and since we started working with them, we’ve now trained, I think, nearly every Smithfield director, a bunch of the vice presidents, a vast number of other senior leaders there. On top of that, we go into the plants and work with the general managers and the leadership teams inside the plants,” Willink told NBC Sports. “So, we have a really cool, really strong relationship with them and it was maybe two or three months ago, Dennis reached out.

“He’s got an incredible attitude and he’s a patriotic person and they do things to try and memorialize and remember fallen soldiers. So, they had an opportunity to put this on a car, and he reached out, and said that they’d be honored to put the names of my guys from Task Unit Bruiser – Marc Lee, Mike Monsoor, Ryan Job – to put them on a car and we were just super excited to hear that.”

Willink led Team Unit Bruiser during the Battle of Ramadi, where Monsoor and Lee were killed in action and Job was critically injured.

On Sept. 29, 2006, Monsoor lost his life after jumping on and absorbing the blast of a grenade thrown onto the rooftop where he and other soldiers were positioned. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2008.

Almost two months earlier, Lee and Job (pronounced ‘jobe’) were involved in a fire fight on Aug. 2, 2006. An enemy sniper hit Job’s rifle, causing it to shatter. Pieces of the weapon pierced his eyes and left him permanently blind.

Lee provided cover fire as other members of the team prepared Job for medical evacuation. Later, Lee and his SEAL element regrouped and returned to engage the enemy. As the element was clearing a building, the group came under fire.

For a third time, Lee exposed himself to draw fire away from his team. He was struck and killed. Lee was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Valor, and the Purple Heart.

Job survived his injuries and received treatment upon returning from action. He went on to climb Washington’s Mount Rainier among other physical accomplishments. But just shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in business administration, Job died on Sept. 24, 2009 following a facial reconstruction procedure to repair the injuries he’d suffered in battle.

When asked about what he wanted NASCAR fans to know about the three soldiers, Willink said he’d always described them collectively as “saints” who took care of their families, their friends, and others.

Lee was the funny one that always knew what to say to make people laugh. Monsoor was more stoic, but carried a “little crooked smile” no matter the situation. And Job was “like the wild mascot” for Task Unit Bruiser - as Willink put it, “you never knew what you were going to get, but it was gonna be good.”

“And on top of these characteristics, these guys were all incredible family members,” Willink continued. “They had great families. They loved their families dearly. And they had a great group of friends, not just inside the Task Unit but outside of other SEALs and obviously, throughout their lives.

“They had dreams and things they wanted to do with their future, and they sacrificed all of that without hesitation for us. It was an honor to know these guys, it was an honor to work with them, and it’s an honor to be a part of this where other people can learn and remember these incredible human beings.”

One can argue that’s why the ‘600 Miles of Remembrance’ exists.

Even in a sport where fans broadly support the military, active members take part in pre-race ceremonies, and veterans dot the rosters of many race teams, it stands to reason that there may be some who certainly respect those who serve, but may not fully appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families make.

As Willink knows acutely, the military world and the civilian world are not the same.

In the latter world, far away from battle and driven by a non-stop news cycle, fallen soldiers can sometimes be represented simply by their name, rank, and the manner in which they died. Their stories, as soldiers and human beings, can become lost.

“I think one thing that happens, and it always happens in war, that it’s possible to become distant from it,” he said. “You’re looking at it from a distance, thousands of miles away. The names of these people become statistics and numbers, and they’re another casualty, they’re another ‘killed in action.’

“I think it’s easy for some civilians to lose that personal connection ... that these are people.”

But in seeing the names of the fallen carried by their favorite drivers, fans both old and new are given the chance to learn about them and those stories.

Willink is hopeful that fans will take that chance and come away with a deeper appreciation.

“I think it’s very powerful to see these actual names of these guys, to see their names and understand that they had families, understand that they were people just like you and me, and just like every civilian out there, they had hopes and dreams for a future,” he said.

“They wanted to do things with their lives. They had loved ones. And they weren’t just a statistic.”