HEMPSTEAD, TEXAS - Already 80 degrees at 8 am with full sun, it didn't seem like the time or conditions to run 3.1 miles. It didn't even seem like the time to stand outside for more than five minutes. However, in Hempstead, Texas, more than 500 people came out to run, walk or roll the Watermelon Run for the Fallen 5K.
The run is an annual event, started in 2008 in Fort Irwin, California, to commemorate and remember service members lost to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Also in 2008, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Lee Hartley, son of Hempstead Chief of Police David Hartley, died in Iraq. Two years later, Hartley organized the first Watermelon Run in Hempstead.
The event now draws more than 4,000 attendees to pay respect to local heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. Some participate, some support with various services, and some just come to look at the posters, paintings and placards made for each service member. For the runners, even if they didn't lose a troop to the war, the run still has a deep meaning.
"It makes me feel special and like I'm doing something good for the community," said Michelle Lovingshimer, a runner from College Station, Texas. "Some have sacrificed everything and there's nothing we can do to repay that."
This was Lovingshimer's second time running the Watermelon Run, but the sentiment and meaning of the run still is just as strong.
"It brings tears to my eyes every time I'm out here," she said while wiping her eye.
Each runner can sign up for a service member to run for or ask to be assigned one. The runner receives a bib to wear while running, but instead of the traditional number you see during a race, there is a photo, a name, a hometown and an age: all the information of the service member for whom the runner is running. The day surrounds attendees with images and information about the men and women who died overseas, and gives future Soldiers a reinvigorated reason to serve.
"It filled me with pride knowing we would be carrying on that honorable tradition," explained Torrey Kramer, a future infantryman out of Houston, Texas. "We are the ones who are going to be stepping up next time. "
And while they enjoyed running and celebrating the men and women before them, the future soldiers gained perspective of the true weight of their decision through the Watermelon Run.
"It put emotions in me about going into combat," said Ryan Whitely, a Houston, Texas, native and future cavalry scout. "If I were to get lost, my parents would be devastated. So I felt devastated for all the parents who lost a [service member]."
Running is a huge part of the military, both in training and in how holidays and other events are celebrated, so it's only fitting that a run is what remembers fallen service members. The impact on the community and the family members of the Watermelon Run was clear on the faces of the families and other troops at the event.
For Kramer, seeing that emotion made every step he took and every drop of sweat in the extreme heat worth it.
"If just running three miles, means that much to all these people and makes their day better and is that important, you know if running could fix all the problems in the world, I would never stop."
In 2013, the community of Hempstead took their support of the military one step further. They entered into a community covenant with the U.S. Army, agreeing to support the military, and the military agreeing to support the community. Because of this, Hempstead is able to partner with Operation Military Embrace, out of Tomball, Texas, and support and remember the local heroes every day of the year, not just on the day of the Watermelon Run.