Editor's note: This is the final story of a six-part series honoring local veterans, leading up to the city of Paducah's inaugural American Hero Day celebration on Nov. 11.
By JOSHUA ROBERTS
The biographical information on Dean Hart's Instagram lists his world-traveling adventure credentials.
Expedition medic. Ultra runner. Spartan. Crew ninja.
But one descriptor in particular was the gateway to all others, the foundation for the always-on-the-go lifestyle Hart lives today, the spark that lit the fire:
Marine Corps veteran.
"You're always a Marine," said Hart, a Paducah resident and Ballard County paramedic. "That's the difference between the Marine Corps and every other branch. That title, Marine, you earned it. You get it for the rest of your life."
Hart's 2019 has included summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; serving with international medical teams in Guyana and the Bahamas; crewing at Badwater -- "the world's toughest foot race," a grueling 135-mile character test through Death Valley; and most recently, crewing a cross-country run from San Francisco to New York City, his fourth such outing.
He's got a Spartan race coming up later this month in North Carolina with his son, 6-year-old Ethan, and he's organizing the logistics of a trek to Everest for early next year.
But today, he said, is special. Today's the Marine Corps birthday, it's 244th, and Hart's back home in Paducah to mark the occasion with the local Marine Corps League.
"I and most Marines celebrate Nov. 10 like it's our personal birthday," he said. "Actually, I put more effort into the Marine Corps birthday than I do my own birthday.
"It doesn't matter where you're at, literally anywhere in the world, even in a combat zone, they will find a way to get a cake and a sword and you will cut the cake.
"You will always celebrate that (day) with the Marine Corps. It's a big deal."
Hart, originally from Paris, Tennessee, served through the 1990s, enlisting two weeks after his high school graduation. He deployed to Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, Singapore, Thailand, Dubai and the Iraq-Kuwait border.
"I thought about Army Special Forces for a while, but I read all the time -- I'm a big history buff -- and the Marines always take that front lead with less than everybody else and that's where they stay," Hart said. "And so I just looked at it and that's who I wanted to be."
Hart was a sergeant, a forward observer in the STA -- Surveillance and Target Acquisition -- platoon, trained in mapping, communications and calling in artillery and air support. The Marine Corps, he said, didn't completely shape who he was or would become but rather "honed it."
"It was a natural extension," Hart said.
But for all he got out of the service, he knew he wasn't meant to be a career military man. After leaving the Corps, Hart went to Murray State, graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science with a double minor in pre-law and finance. He launched a real estate construction company, finding success in the business world, but struggling with the transition of life turned down from "110 mph to zero."
"I was imploding," he said. "(Work) took me away from everything that kept me on my path -- it took me from running, mountaineering. … It just socked up all my time."
Luckily, he said, "life has a funny way of putting opportunities in front of you."
About a decade ago, Hart connected with an ultra runner who would attempt to traverse the San Francisco to NYC route barefoot, shooting for a world record. The runner wanted Hart on the crew, but asked that he acquire medical training first.
"It was like, 'You know what, I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to give it a shot,'" Hart said. "… He gave me the opportunity to go take those (medic) classes, and through those classes it was, 'This is it. This is what I love to do.'
"It put me back into that military sort of mindset again. It gave me a brand new purpose, it fed that mission mindset. And it made me feel good and I liked it."
From there, he was off and running -- literally. Today, he pays the bills with his Ballard County job, but his real life -- life turned back up -- is spent as a remote expedition medic, and of course, Ethan's dad.
"I've always loved adventure," Hart said. "Dropping into a Third World country, living out of my backpack, that's my idea of a vacation instead of going to a beach and sitting.
"If (Ethan) picks up anything from me, I want him to love to travel. I think experiencing the world is better than any college. I'm going to push him to go to college, of course, but the experience of the world is better.
"I really don't think you get the full appreciation of all we have in this country until you step into a Third World country. People in some places are reduced to wondering, 'Where is my next drink of water? Will I have enough food? Do I have shelter to get out of the sun today?'"
In 2016, Hart crewed American ultra runner Pete Kostelnick at Badwater, where he finished first and broke the course record. Hart crewed Kostelnick again later that year on his world record coast-to-coast crossing of the U.S. in 42 days.
A year later, he crewed a London ultra runner's 300 miles journey across Nepal as a fundraiser for a school.
In mid-October, Hart crewed another coast-to-coast attempt, this time for Jennifer Hoffman, a Harvard physics professor. She attempted to break the women's world record (54 days), and was on pace to finish in 49 days before an injury derailed her near Pennsylvania.
Crewing a runner, Hart said, entails being a pacer, coordinating logistics, tracking and managing the runner's caloric and fluid intake, planning routes and organizing supplies, among other tasks. It's unglamorous work, he said, but suits his grind-over-glory personality.
"I'm not world class like these runners are," Hart said. "And even though it's not my accomplishment, it still sort of feeds my fire because I was part of that, no matter what. It's cool to stand there beside them, and they know, they're appreciative of what you've done."
Hart said he doesn't intend on slowing down anytime soon.
"Man, I want to run, rock climb, mountaineer, go places to train as a medic, I want the whole thing," he said.
"A friend of mine, she works in Paducah, she said something to me the other day, 'I don't even know how to explain you to regular people anymore.'
"I kind of like that. I like being the extreme side of the conversation, I guess."