BETH YOUNG PHOTO | The runners and supporters outside the Southold firehouse Friday.
Marines from the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marines Regiment are planning to disrupt Memorial Day celebrations along a more than 100-mile stretch of road from Orient to the site of the World Trade Center beginning this morning in honor of their 48 fellow servicemen who died in Iraq in 2005.
This is the third time the Marines have held a 100 Mile Memorial Relay, but the prior two events went from Richmond, Va. to the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. This year, Staff Sgt. Oscar Aguilera, who grew up in Greenport, suggested they hold the event on Long Island, and invite first responders and police officers, particularly those who were on the scene on 9/11, to join them in remembering the fallen.
This event has already raised more money to benefit Hope for the Warriors than any of the prior events, said Staff Sgt. Aguilera at a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the event at the Southold firehouse Friday night. He said the 26 runners who will each take a roughly 15-mile leg of the race have already raised more than $26,000 to help soldiers returning from war and their families.
The runners, who will run two at a time while carrying the American flag and the Hope for the Warriors flag, will be accompanied by an entourage including escorts from police and fire services and two RVs, where the runners will rest between runs.
“If you see traffic screwed up out there, that’s because of us,” said Navy medic Bill Sukitch, who helped to organize the event. “It’s time for you to remember and honor this special group of people.”
At Friday’s fundraiser were three people who have special reason to remember this weekend. Hospital Corpsman Jeff Wiener, whose wife Maria and daughter Mikayla live in Ridge, was one of the 48 men who lost their lives in Iraq in 2005.
Ms. Wiener hadn’t been in regular contact with members of her husband’s battalion, but when she heard they were coming to Long Island, she wanted to honor her husband, whose birthday would have been today. Mr. Wiener’s mother Diana, who flies to Long Island from her home in Kentucky every Memorial Day Weekend to be with her son’s family, also came to the event. They plan to cheer on the runners on the roadside when they pass through Ridge.
Ms. Wiener said her husband was killed in a roadside ambush in a van in Haditha, just outside of a civilian hospital. He had been in the service for two years and had been in Iraq for two-and-a-half months.
“I want people to remember what was sacrificed for something better. His goal was to make sure his kid’s future was secure,” she said.
Chrystyna Kestler, mother of Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, who died in Afghanistan in 2010, was the keynote speaker Friday night.
Ms. Kestler said she also wants people to remember that Memorial Day is about more than sales and barbecues. Her son Jimbo will run in the relay.
“Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, when they’d decorate the graves of soldiers,” she said. “Try to take some time to remember how special this is. Take some time to remember what so many gave for us. He [Lt. Theinert] volunteered. He said yes. Less than 1 percent do.”
She said her family is still struggling to repair the hole left in their lives when Lt. Theinert died.
“It’s only in service to others that we can get beyond ourselves and heal,” she said. “Everybody in this room has helped repair that tear.”
The Marines began their run at the Orient ferry dock at 8 a.m. They will run through Greenport at the start of the Tall Ships festival at 10 a.m., then run up to Route 48 and along Sound Avenue.
Check out photos from Friday night’s fundraiser on suffolktimes.com.