Jacksonville, North Carolina’s motto is “A Caring Community.” Sitting 12 miles outside of Camp LeJeune, the “Marine Town” serves as a symbol of Hope For The Warriors. For 16 years, runners, walkers, and cyclists have gathered at the starting line with one goal in mind: to support service members, veterans, and military families. The 5K and 10K runners all go over a bridge, a stretch with pictures and names of fallen service members. Several of them bow their heads and tap the photos, recognizing the sacrifices made by each service member during the “Memorial Mile.”
Tim O’Brien wore a weighted vest with the name “Jason Little” on it. Jason was a Marine killed in action on January 7, 2006. “This year, it’s on the back end of the 10K, and when you go across the bridge and see the signs, it hits you again why you’re doing it,” Tim said.
Army Veteran Gabi Cha was among the first to pass this stretch during her 10K journey on the handcycle. It was also her first HOPE event ever. “I’m super ecstatic because in the military, we build a lot of things on tradition. Tradition is extremely important. My family is huge on tradition. To be a part of HOPE’s family and to start a new tradition from something they started for the first time here. For me, I ended my career out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but just to come back here and for the first time do something now that I’m out of the service [is special]. Just because I’m out of the service doesn’t mean it’s over yet; just starting a new chapter in life with my first event being here,” Gabi said.
Gabi served as a Combat Medic for 17 years and was medically discharged in 2021. She learned about Hope For The Warriors, which led to a friendship with HOPE military relations director Lee Bonar. After countless conversations and building a strong bond over the phone, Lee and Gabi met in person for the first time over the weekend. “She is even more of a patriot and warrior than what I ever imagined,” Lee said. “Gabi has helped to really validate my purpose in life through this event.”
“When I was really hitting a dark time, never having met Lee, being able to talk about personal things, and just having that trust and bond with him definitely made me open up and realize I’m not alone,” Gabi said.
She has competed in the Invictus and Warrior Games and represented Team USA in the Wheelchair Rugby league. “After being medically discharged, the only thing I knew was to represent something bigger than myself. Because I didn’t have that anymore, I was trying to figure myself out, figure my life out. On top of that, dealing with a medical condition that changed my whole personality and my life. Doing well with adaptive sports, getting that opportunity to represent the USA again. Having USA on my shirt or on my back with other veterans meant so much to me,” Gabi said.
At the Jacksonville Run For The Warriors, Gabi wore a red, white, and blue Team HOPE jersey. When she crossed the finish line, Lee was right there to greet her. “I’m a firm believer that it takes a village to raise someone. I think HOPE is the definition of that. You need hope. I used to always say, ‘hope floats,’ hope doesn’t get people anywhere. Over the last several years, I’ve learned that hope is the one thing you need to get from Point A to Point B,” Gabi said.
“You can’t put a price on it,” Lee said. “It’s something that is a life memory. It’s an intangible life memory that they can build on. If Gabi goes back home or another veteran goes back home, and they start to go through a troubled time, this is something they can grab onto inside of themselves that can bring a smile to their face or can be a moment of strength in trial.”
Team Hope For The Warriors (Team HOPE) provides athletes of all abilities the opportunity to compete at various endurance events throughout the year. Team HOPE is comprised of two different groups: Warrior Team and Community Team.
Warrior Team members are provided race support, goal-setting opportunities, and social engagement to ensure that they all feel the camaraderie, belonging, and connection that comes with being part of a team.
Community Team members challenge themselves to raise funds for America’s heroes, set new athletic goals, or simply support our military. Together, these Team members are united by the goal to improve the health of service members and military families across the nation.
*All Warrior Team participants must connect to services with Hope For The Warriors before being added to the program.