Hempstead’s Watermelon Run for the Fallen: Pulling Together to Honor One of Their Own
By David Hartley, Chief of Police, City of Hempstead
Events occur every day. Some affect us personally, some affect our communities, and some affect our nation. Some events are never forgotten, and we remember them like they happened yesterday.
One such event that affected the City of Hempstead occurred on April 8, 2008, and it was a tragic loss to our community and my family. It was a day that we lost one of our own, my son SSG Jeffery Lee Hartley, in the war in Iraq. Jeffrey grew up in Hempstead, played football in high school, was in the band, and powerlifted. He worked in our local businesses; he was a friend to everyone and was known for his smile and generosity. Following graduation in 2001, he joined the Army with the goal of becoming an Army Ranger.
During his military career, Jeffrey deployed five times: four times to Iraq, and once to Afghanistan. He earned eight Army Commendation Medals—one with valor—and two Bronze Stars—one with valor. He always said that he wanted to return to his hometown and have a small ranch. He was quick to let everyone know how proud he was to be from Hempstead, Texas.
The love that was shown to my family after the loss of Jeffrey was overwhelming and was truly appreciated. My wife and I always wanted to find a way to repay the support the citizens of Hempstead had shown us. In June 2010, we heard about a group that organized a run from Fort Irwin, California, to Arlington National Cemetery. At every mile, runners placed a flag and biography of a service member who had been killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The organization, known as Run for the Fallen, was trying to get other groups across the country to hold events on the third weekend of August to remember our fallen. My wife Ann, and I talked about it, and my youngest son, who also served in the Army as an Army Ranger and had been deployed to Iraq, said that he would like to see how many really cared and would show up.
We enlisted the help of local VFW Commander Scott Duncan, who had also served in Iraq with the Tenth Mountain, and Alderwoman Patricia Chernosky to help us put the event together. Hempstead is known to have the best watermelons in the country, so we decided to name the event Watermelon Run for the Fallen. In less than six weeks—on August 21, 2010—the inaugural event took place.
In six short weeks, the citizens of Hempstead gathered together and worked many hours making sure that each of the fallen was respectfully represented in an honorable way. The Hempstead Garden Club came together and worked like busy bees putting the t-shirts, wristbands, and biographies together for each person who would participate. The sight of these women working reminded us of the assembly lines that were put together during World War II to assemble bandages to send to the troops serving overseas. Individuals worked from daylight to the deep hours of the night to ensure that everything was done with honor and respect.
The City of Hempstead City Council voted to assist with the first event, allocated money to support the event, and provided assistance in putting the event together. Over 1,500 people attended the first event. Six Gold Star Families (families that have lost a loved one in combat) attended.
Following the success of the inaugural event, a board of directors was appointed and a 501(c)(3) was established to organize and plan future events. Each year since, the city has voted to provide funds and manpower to assist in the event, which takes place the third Saturday of August.
In 2012, more than 4,100 people attended the Watermelon Run for the Fallen. Families came from 16 different states, and there was one international visitor. More than 50 Gold Star Families came to pay honor and respect to the fallen from Texas.
These families come because it has become a healing time for them and has helped them heal some of the pain they have carried for years. I have seen wounded attend and pay respect to their fallen brothers and sisters. One individual comes each year and runs wearing the boot of his fellow Marine who was killed in action. What makes his endeavor special is that he only has one leg; an improvised explosive device took his other leg. These are the men and women who make our event what it is. The City of Hempstead has shown not only my family much love, but also each family that comes to Hempstead, who feels the same love, honor, and respect.
Shortly after the war in Iraq was declared over, I was asked what I thought about the war ending. I told them it will never be over for each family that lost a loved one, it will never be over for the men and women who served, and it will never be over for the communities that lost one of their own. We have a DUTY to HONOR our fallen who gave their lives for our COUNTRY. Duty, Honor, and Country are words that ring in my head daily. The City of Hempstead will not forget, nor allow anyone else to forget, our fallen. The City of Hempstead and its citizens are committed to making sure that our military and their families are not forgotten and will always be honored in the most respectful way possible.
On April 15, 2013, the U.S. Army and the City of Hempstead entered into a community covenant. By signing this covenant, the city agrees to support the military, and the military agrees to support the city. As a result, the City of Hempstead and its citizens have been able to assist and support our military’s wounded through the efforts of a partnership with Operation Military Embrace, a Texas-based military support group located in Tomball, Texas.
As you can see, the City of Hempstead and its citizens are some of the most loving, caring, and respectful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
For more information regarding Watermelon Run for the Fallen, contact David Hartley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-831-1750.