By Emily J. Weitz
For a generation where Memorial Day seems to be more about barbecues than American flags, Hope for the Warriors keeps a light shining on the people who have sacrificed so much in the name of freedom.
For the past four years, veterans, service members and families have participated in the Memorial 100 Run, a relay race that will start Saturday, May 25 at dawn at the Montauk Lighthouse, traversing Long Island’s 136 miles and ending at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. This year, participants will run six miles off their traditional route to pass through Sag Harbor and over the Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge in honor of one of Sag Harbor’s own fallen soldiers and all those who sacrificed their lives before him.
Christian Haerter has worked directly with Hope for the Warriors since 2008 when his son, Jordan, was killed in action in Ramadi, Iraq at the age of 19. But it wasn’t Christian who suggested that the run diverge from the most direct route across Long Island, to come to Sag Harbor in honor of Jordan. It was the group which originally organized the Memorial 100 — three Marines who deployed with the 3rd Battalion 25th Marine regiment to Iraq in 2005.
The battalion was on a mission to train Iraqi Security Forces and conduct stability and security operations in the Al Anbar province. During its six-month deployment, the unit lost 46 Marines and two sailors — one of the largest sacrifices by a single regiment during the course of the war. A memorial tribute to their service and sacrifice was erected at the battalion headquarters in Brook Park, Ohio.
The Memorial 100 race is now in its fourth year.
“These guys who were deployed in Iraq and lost 48 guys in six months, they wanted to honor Jordan by running over the bridge,” says Haerter. “They knew Jordan’s story, they knew about his sacrifice, and they wanted to incorporate that into their run.”
When Jordan lost his life he saved the lives of over 50 people — Marines, Iraqi police and civilians. He was the only child of Sag Harbor residents Christian Haerter and JoAnn Lyles. One of the most important things for parents who have suffered that loss, says Haerter, is feeling that their child is not forgotten.
“For any military family who has lost a child,” he says, “a real important aspect is to see that their child’s legacy goes on… I always think of a bridge as leading to someplace, and in this particular run I see it as a bridge to hope. It will be cathartic for us and for these guys running. They are doing it for one of their brothers.”
Senior Airman Michael Roesch is one of the young veterans who will be running this weekend. He served in the Air Force from 1999 to 2003 throughout the Middle East. In his civilian life, he’s a personal trainer at Studio 89 here in Sag Harbor, but he stays connected to his military family through organizations like Hope for the Warriors, and believes events like this one are essential to remind people of the reality of war.
“I used to think of Memorial Day as a day off of work,” says Roesch. “Now I think of the friends I lost. I have people to remember — five friends I lost in the war. I don’t want to barbecue.”
According to Hope for the Warriors, the Memorial 100 was organized to “interrupt” Memorial Day weekend barbeques and parties by reminding everyone of the holiday’s true purpose — to honor and remember fallen servicemen and women — through a race that is impossible to ignore.
“At first people are annoyed that you’re taking up so much of the road,” says Roesch, “and then they find out what you’re doing, and they stop. Maybe they make a donation.”
“It’s a powerful message: What are you going to remember this weekend?” he asks. “I am going to remember five people in particular. Take time out of your day to be thankful for what you have. You are eating that hot dog and drinking that beer because of those people. And every generation before us.”
Hope for the Warriors, the organization behind the Memorial 100 run, has organized countless other events across the country to support military families. The organization was created at a grassroots level by the wives of Marines to offer a full cycle of care not just to the service members and veterans, but also to the families whose lives are forever impacted.
“No matter where a service member or family member is in recovery, we have a program to meet them there and help them,” says Anne Barnwell, the director of public relations for Hope for the Warriors. “We have programs of outreach, critical care coordination, family support. Or maybe we meet them years later and their injury is PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). We organize hope and morale events. We get to know these people better and find out what their needs are. We connect them to services they may not know about.”
Haerter can vouch for the importance of Hope for the Warriors.
“Hope for the Warriors focuses on helping people with physical and mental injuries,” says Haerter. “In that respect, it’s important for us as Gold Star families to see that our own children, who have been killed in action, are remembered through works done for others.”
Haerter created Jordan’s Initiative, a memorial foundation, that works closely with Hope for the Warriors to provide a hand cycle on an annual basis for a service member or veteran who has lost mobility.
“We see the impact that hand cycles have had on guys who are missing legs or arms,” says Haerter. “It gives them the ability to become mobile again and to participate in sports.”
Hope for the Warriors helps Jordan’s Initiative to navigate the red tape of the military, to help put them in touch with worthy recipients.
“One big part of rehabilitation,” says Haerter, “is to get them back out and functioning. If they’re in the military, most of them were pretty athletic and active. This allows them to get back out there and really participate along with other people, to get back into competition, which helps in other aspects of life as well.”
Jordan’s Initiative also engages in a series of benefits and activities aimed at supporting members of the armed forces and their families. Lyles has also created her own memorial foundation, In Jordan’s Honor.
On Saturday, May 25 between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Haerter hopes to see the community come out in support of the armed forces, its veterans, military families and for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., when runners are expected to cross the Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter Veterans’ Memorial Bridge, Haerter and Hope for Warriors plan to have the bridge lined by veterans from every military branch holding American flags in honor of those service members who were lost in the line of duty. Each flag will have a streamer containing a gold star and the name of one of the branches of service. All the flags will be donated to the Village of Sag Harbor after the event.
“That bridge is going to be an amazing sight to see,” says Barnwell. “There will be 50 flags across the bridge, with volunteers on either side. I cannot imagine anyone seeing it and not feeling that emotion.”
Two of those flags will specifically be held in honor of Jordan and for 1st Lieutenant Joseph J. Theinert, a Shelter Island resident who grew up in Sag Harbor and was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.
“You can have the barbecue and go to the beach and be with your family,” said Haerter. “But even if it’s just for five minutes, it’s important to remember all the people who died to make that possible. Sometimes people forget. It’s almost like how people didn’t realize we were in a war until they saw a hearse with Jordan’s body rolling down Main Street. Suddenly it became real.”
“ I would like everybody to come out and stand by the side of the road on Saturday morning, and bring an American flag,” he adds. “These guys are running to bring awareness to Memorial Day, not just the 48 that they lost, but to everybody. It’s quite a cross to bear.”