When U.S. military units return from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is much fanfare.
There are smiling families. There are grateful neighbors cheering with U.S. flags and balloons that read “Welcome Home.” Often, there are parties and celebrations.
But for the service men and women who are injured in the line of duty, homecoming can be a lonely experience.
“When you come home and you’re not injured, you come back with your unit, so you come back with a group. But if you’re injured, you come back by yourself. There’s usually nobody there, other than medical staff and personnel. They don’t get that celebration,” said Casey O’Donnell, coordinator of Run for the Warriors.
“If you’re injured [while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan], you come back by yourself.” – Casey O’Donnell
This year Secaucus will host its first Run for the Warriors, a 5K run through Harmon Meadow, on Sunday, May 15. (A shorter one mile walk will also be available for people who don’t want to participate in the run.)
“The town felt it was important to honor some of our younger veterans who sometimes don’t come out to other Memorial Day celebrations we’ve held,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “This event is a great way for us to show them our respect and raise money for those injured serving our country.”
Secaucus runs for the vets
Thus far, 117 Secaucus residents have registered for next week’s Run for the Warriors, but O’Donnell said organizers “would like that get up to , if possible.”
Walkers and runners pay a $25 registration fee, which will be $30 the day of the event. In addition, Hartz Mountain Industries and other local companies have made corporate donations of 2,500 and $5,000. The town is on pace, O’Donnell said, to raise about $60,000 next weekend, a respectable sum for an inaugural event.
“Initially, many months ago I know the town was very ambitious and wanted to raise $100,000,” she said. “Realistically, though, you don’t see numbers like that until an event is established in the community and has been organized for a few years in a row.”
Local hero to serve as grand marshal
Before the walk begins there will be a ceremony to honor Secaucus native and Purple Heart recipient Luke Smentkowski, a U.S. Marine and veteran of the war in Iraq.
Smentkowski, who served two tours of duty, will be the grand marshal of Run for the Warriors.
Smentkowski had been working a job in New York City when he decided to join the Marines in July 2001. He took his oath of service on Sept. 6, 2001, less than a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I felt I needed to do something more…something patriotic,” Smentkowski told the Reporter in 2009.
He soon found himself in Nasiriyah, Iraq, and had been on the ground barely two months when, on March 23, 2003, his unit was fighting Iraq’s Republican National Guard.
He and the members of his unit were working in tandem with other military units to clear a strategically important area in Nasiriyah. His unit’s mission was to secure one bridge while another unit was supposed to clear another.
Within moments, the other unit was ambushed and heavy fighting ensued.
When the battle ended after nearly five hours, 11 U.S. soldiers had been killed and several had been taken as prisoners of war. Jessica Lynch was among the troops captured in the fighting that day. Smentkowski’s unit played a supporting role in her eventual rescue.
This initial battle was followed by six additional days of fighting that claimed the lives of 18 Marines and wounded 150 others.
Smentkowski would later be injured himself on Oct. 29, 2004, during his second tour of duty.
While on patrol, his company was re-entering a barracks when four improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs, went off and Smentkowski was hit with shrapnel. One piece of shrapnel hit his chin and traveled to his neck. Another entered an arm and lodged in his back.
He was sent to Germany where was stabilized before being sent back to the U.S. for surgery and additional medical treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Ultimately his jaw had to be reconstructed and he needed bone grafts on his hip.
(For more information on Luke Smentkowski, see “Brother in Arms,” Secaucus Reporter, May 31, 2009.)
Before the run kicks off, Smentkowski will also be presented with an “honor box,” which will contain a U.S. flag and the various medals he has received, including his Purple Heart.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.