An event that started with several hundred people gathered around a downtown Hempstead, Texas gazebo has grown into one of the largest non-holiday demonstrations of military support in the entire United States.
Hempstead Police Chief David Hartley and his wife Anne wanted to find some way to honor their son, Army Sgt. Jeffery Hartley who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq April 8, 2008. That led to the Watermelon Run for the Fallen, now an August fixture for the small town northwest of Houston that once held the 1940's moniker as the unofficial watermelon capital of the world.
But now Hartley hopes the town of roughly 6,000 people has become a leading example for the rest of the world in the right way to honor U.S. troops who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
"All we want is our son back and we can't have that," said Hartley as crowds gathered for the 5th annual Watermelon Run. "So we want to try to pay it forward and bring people together in a positive way."
The first event in 2010 drew an estimated 1,500 people. This past Saturday, more than 4-thousand filled the Hempstead High School football stadium and ran and walked a 5K course that ended in the heart of town next to the memorial bench and statue that bear SSGT Jeffery Hartley's name. And, in a somber ceremony that took more than an hour to complete, volunteers took turns reading aloud more than 800 names of U.S. servicemen and women who died serving their country. Some of the troops honored had Texas connections. Others were from families who specifically asked that their loves ones be honored.
The photos and names of the servicemen and women also lined the entire 5K race route. Each of the participants in the walk/run also wore the name and photo of a U.S. serviceman or woman who died in battle.
"Things like this definitely show respect, they show honor. And that's what the military is all about," said Marine Sgt. Eric Morante who lost his lower right leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007. Now outfitted with a carbon fiber blade, the amputee led the runners on the 5K course. Soon he also plans to take part in the first sanctioned amputee boxing match in the United States. The National Amputee Boxing Association is composed mostly of military veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Events like this, and the honor these people give our soldiers, helps give me the encouragement to keep moving forward," he said of the Watermelon Run for the Fallen.
"My heart gets happy," said Maria Salgado of the Hempstead event who admits she has had little to be happy about since her son CPL Benjamin Salgado Rosales was killed in action October 2006.
"I'm happy to see all these people here," she said as she stood with the Patriot Guard Riders who formed a gauntlet of flags to welcome the 5K runners at the end of the race course. "We need to get with them. We need to support them," she said of the U.S. troops she calls her family.
"I am very proud of my son. Very proud," said fellow Gold Star Mom Juanita Colunga of her son SPC Zeferino Eusebio Colunga who died suddenly from complications of leukemia and pneumonia while serving in Iraq in 2003.
"I know that they will never forget him," she said of the thousands who gathered for the memorial event in Hempstead. "He'll always be remembered by all these people that come here."
Run for the Fallen is a National Event. That started in 2008, when a team of ran across America from Fort Irwin, CA to Arlington National Cemetery, one mile for every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Watermelon Run for the Fallen has become the largest event of its kind in the country.