June 15, 2013

Runners take to track to remember fallen soldiers

Families, friends and others gathered Saturday in Applegate Park for Run for the Fallen, a 4.2-mile memorial walk or run honoring service men and women. Organizers estimated about 1,000 participants.

Tears streamed from behind Felicia Gould’s sunglasses as she remembered her classmate killed in Iraq on Dec. 19, 2006.

“He was amazing,” the 26-year-old from Atwater said about Cpl. Joshua Pickard.

“He would give you the shirt off his back, he would do anything for you,” she said.

Pickard, 20, was killed by small-arms fire in Iraq. He was in his third year of service in the Marines, working as an amphibious assault vehicle driver.

Pickard attended Buhach Colony High School, and graduated a year before Gould. The Marine was proud of his service, Gould said.

Families, friends and others gathered Saturday in Applegate Park for Run for the Fallen, a 4.2-mile memorial walk or run honoring service men and women. Organizers estimated about 1,000 participants.

Each entrant pinned a card to his or her shirt, many with the name of a fallen soldier.

Debbie Sommerfeld of Manteca wore a card bearing the name of Army paratrooper Pfc. Lukas Hopper. The Golden Valley High School graduate died Oct. 30, 2009, when his Humvee flipped in a noncombat-related crash southeast of Karadah, Iraq.

Sommerfeld said she did not know Hopper personally, but that didn’t stop her from taking the time to honor him.

“They take time to serve for our country, so we get to do what we want to do,” the 52-year-old said.

Runners and walkers took to the route at 8 a.m., after a ceremony paying tribute to Pfc. Karina Lau. The Livingston 20-year-old was killed in Iraq on Nov. 2, 2003, with 15 other American soldiers when their transport helicopter was shot down in an attack west of Baghdad.

Lau’s parents, Augustin and Ruth, were in attendance.

Run for the Fallen was created to honor those who have died while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it welcomes those who want to remember fallen soldiers of any era.

Esteban Ortiz, 52, of Atwater has two sons serving in the Marine Corp. However, his run was dedicated to great-uncle Eusebio Herrera, a World War II veteran.

“He was a prisoner of war during the Philippine invasion,” Ortiz said.

Herrera grew up poor in Texas, Ortiz said, and joined the Army because of the opportunities it could provide. Then the war broke out.

Ortiz said Herrera died in a Philippine prison and may have been subject to the Bataan Death March, a 63-mile trek that resulted in the death of an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 prisoners.

The run was organized by Gold and Blue Star Mothers, and sponsored by Lions Breakfast Club, Merced Elks Lodge, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars from Ballico and Winton, as well as a number of businesses.

Not all attendees came together to remember Merced County natives. Melody Coates of Merced set up a table covered in photos and keepsakes in honor of Pfc. Matthew Wilson, a Springfield, Mis., native.

“He loved life, he loved living life,” Coates, 35, said. “He was excited to serve for his country, was ready to lay down his life.”

Wilson was killed at 19 years old when an explosive was detonated outside his vehicle, Coates said. Wilson, an ammunitions handler, was riding outside of the hatch when the explosive went off, she said.

Three others were killed in that blast.

Wilson’s son, who is also called Matthew, is now 4 and gave a list of six things he wanted others to know about his dad. Coates handed the list out to passers-by.

“He was the best daddy,” the list reads. “He can’t come home.”

Veterans also had a presence Saturday.

Gabriel Soto traveled from Visalia with friends and family in tow for the run. The 29-year-old, who served two combat tours as a Marine in Iraq between 2002 and 2007, said the event carries meaning.

“We show respect and honor for those who’ve fallen and didn’t make it back,” Soto said. “And, for their families it shows that we care and that support is never gone.”

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanosenterprise.com.

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