Reading about the Tunnel to Towers Foundation Race (T2T), an annual event in New York City, and how it began tugs at the heartstrings of most Americans. Its background is a story that played out countless times on that fateful day, September 11, 2001. T2T is in honor of Stephen Siller, a firefighter with Squad 1 in Brooklyn, and NYC Sheep Dogs – our protectors, the men and women who serve or have served in our military and/or first responder professions – who rushed in to help those in the towers. The race route retraces Siller’s final footsteps through the tunnel to Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial.
When Sheep Dog Impact Assistance (SDIA) learned about this race, they knew they needed to participate. With SDIA’s membership made up of Sheep Dogs, it was only natural for them to join the event to honor and support NYC and Sheep Dogs who sacrificed their lives or put their lives on the line every day.
SDIA assembled a team of 50+ members, volunteers and supporters from across the US, and then extended invitations to Sheep Dogs wounded in service to participate at no cost. These sponsored participants – 27 total – had their travel, lodging and meals paid for through the generous support of SDIA corporate sponsors: Walmart, Zantac, Propper, Coca-Cola, ClifBar and Walmart Print Solutions Center.
With their group of almost 80, it took a lot of effort from key SDIA members to make the weekend successful. NY Metro Team Leader, Scott Romonowski, did much of the work getting the SDIA team set up, as well as coordinating lodging, transportation and activities. Group activities included a choice of attending a NY Yankees baseball game or a VIP tour of the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island on Saturday morning, Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial Museum tours that afternoon, and the T2T Appreciation Pasta Dinner Saturday evening. Sunday afternoon was spent with carriage rides through Central Park, visits to the Empire State Building and other tourist attractions. Photos from the weekend can be viewed in SDIA’s Facebook Album, “Tunnel 2 Towers 2015, and a tour of NY.”
For many SDIA Members, 9/11 was the event that cemented their decision to become a Sheep Dog. That was the case for Army veteran, Justin Bryant, one of the 27 combat wounded veterans sponsored for this year’s race. “It was a very emotional weekend,” said Bryant, “because New York City is where the war on terror started for me. I was a very young kid when the twin towers were struck, but that’s when I solidified my promise to join the military.”
The visit to Ground Zero was a first for numerous participants. Emotions ran deep for all who went through the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Seeing items first-hand that were salvaged from the crumbled buildings, like the crushed Ladder 3 fire truck, the final steel beam removed from Ground Zero and the memorial exhibition, were sobering and brought home the absolute devastation of that day.
Bryant had wanted to visit since it opened, but “felt like I couldn’t go because of the amount of emotions I would feel.” Firefighter, Air Force veteran and SDIA Greater Cincinnati Team Leader, Dave Jardon, knew this trip was one he needed to take as well. Like so many of our Sheep Dogs, Jardon took the attack on our great nation very personally. He summed it up in a recent Facebook post: “It is a wound that hasn’t healed. You see, I am a Veteran…and they attacked my country. I am a New Yorker…they did it in my backyard. I am a Delta pilot…they used my industry as their weapons. And I am a Firefighter…they killed 343 of my brothers, and thousands of other innocent civilians.”
“To say that this weekend was special for me,” Jardon said, “would be a colossal understatement.” Alongside his fellow Sheep Dogs, he was able to quietly pay his respects and begin to heal. Being among those who lost limbs and others who suffer greatly with unseen injuries that embody the expression “freedom isn’t free” was incredibly humbling and moving.
Following are just a few of the special moments shared by SDIA participants of their experiences at the Race and throughout the weekend.
- As the group staged for their start and made their way into the tunnel, they walked through a gauntlet of 2,500 West Point Cadets…followed by the Cadets running passed them (that’s SDIA on the left in red!) waving American flags and chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” Talk about a stirring and motivating start!
- Toward the end of the race, the group was stunned by a sight awaiting them. As the group took the final turn to the finish line, they saw the street lined with American flags, bag pipers, and NYC’s Law Enforcement Officers and Firefighters, all in their dress blues. Each one had a full-body photo of one of their fallen brothers. Many of the group went over to thank them and shake their hands, and said they felt almost as though they were thanking the fallen themselves for their sacrifice.
- Nathaniel Gearles, a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) in western North Carolina, and his wife, Leslie, had a “chance” meeting they will not forget. Through the throngs of people, Leslie recognized the parents of NYPD detective Wen Liu, who was executed last year just before Christmas. Nathan said, “As an LEO myself, it always hurts when a brother or sister in Blue is killed, but I was very humbled when I met these two as I offered them my support. [Lui’s] mother gave my wife and I hugs, and his father shook my hand about 20 times. I gave them a patch from my agency to show them that they are still part of the family and always will be.”
- The race helped our sponsored participants overcome some of their fears and physical limitations. Bryant didn’t think he could walk in the 5K. “[But] seeing people missing limbs run the 5K and turn around to come back to walk with us was inspiring. This was the first 5K I have attempted without my walker or cane. I was surrounded by amazing staff and friends, and we leaned on each other for motivation to keep pushing ourselves.”
- T2T was Marine Sergeant Tim Nelams’ first adventure with SDIA and he wasn’t sure what to expect. His experience was nothing short of incredible. “My heart was moved and my emotions were sky high during the tunnel run! It was an absolute amazing experience to be a part of.” Having an opportunity like this also allowed him to meet peers with similar struggles that he can support and be supported by.
- As Firefighter Chadd Landress, SDIA’s Eastern TN Team Leader, made his way through the tunnel and lines of supporters, he felt speechless and pain-free, but within the shadow of Freedom Tower he suddenly felt tired and sore. “Not from the walk, or my helmet, or the heavy turnout gear I wore. I was tired and overwhelmed from the nearly unbearable weight of emotions churning within me all day.”
- Ken Krafft and his wife, Shay, both were raised in military families. For Ken, words could not do justice to the feelings he had by simply being in the company of so many of our nation’s heroes. “I just hope I gave [our heroes] a fraction of what they gave me this weekend. I know I met people I will see again and will stay friends with hopefully for life.”
Through events like the Tunnel to Towers Foundation Race, SDIA has been able to reengage injured Sheep Dogs and help them to realize that their lives are not over…they can still contribute and give back to our country in a mighty way. But the adventures also have a lasting effect on our volunteer members and supporters. Volunteer Sandra Clear and countless others felt a renewed sense of pride and patriotism for our country after the race.
We want to thank all those who donated time and money to help make this incredible weekend happen for our Sheep Dogs. And a heartfelt THANK YOU goes out to our Sponsors: Walmart, Zantac, Propper, Coca-Cola, ClifBar and Walmart Print Solutions Center. Like many of our donors, our Sponsors have made contributions throughout the year, but without their substantial support specifically for this event, we would not have been able to make the trip a reality for so many.
We’d like to leave you with this last T2T experience from Sgt. Matthew Melancon, an inspirational force like none other. May his story touch your heart as it did ours, and renew your desire to continue supporting Sheep Dog Impact Assistance and our nation’s Sheep Dogs.
I climbed out of a van in a crowed parking lot and felt the crisp air fill my lungs.
I wore my Multi-Cam uniform to represent the service that made me the man I am. I wobbled a little – the two carbon fiber “springs” that separated me from the ground were designed for one thing only: running. I grabbed a stuffed panda, a symbol of unconditional love, and made my way with the SDIA Team through the crowds to the starting line. As I approached and heard the cheers of all the other runners and supporters, I told myself, “Today is the day I have been working towards for over a year. Today is the day we honor [Stephen Siller] and all like him.”
The countdown reached zero and we were off. The wheelchairs in front of us parted, and I was able to completely load my legs and get out in front. The roar of the supporters filled my ears, and I ran…hard.
Before I knew it, I was at the entrance to the tunnel. “This is what he saw,” I thought to myself. The West Point cadets’ chanting was driving me harder than I knew possible, and I flew into the darkness.
All at once, it was silent.
I was one of the first people in the tunnel, and the signature *tink* of my prosthetic legs echoed off the walls. Like the Cheetah my legs were named after, I do not handle heat or distance well. The tunnel was stifling, and I quickly began to overheat. My legs grew sore, and my head foggy. “Slow down and walk a bit,” I told myself.
*tink* *tink* *tink* *tink* echoed through the tunnel as I refused.
*Tink* “This is for the fallen.”
*Tink* “This is for all of us who put it all on the line, for a better world.”
*Tink* “This is for her and all the others over there still fighting.”
*Tink* “This is for those who believe in me.”
I looked up and there in front of me were the lights, flags and cameras at the end of the tunnel.
I did it! I ran the whole tunnel, and now there was only a mile left to go!
I had done it!
All the pain of learning to run again… All those mornings filled with pain as my nubs were beat numb by these new and powerful devices I strapped to my body.
I had done it!
Chest heaving, I turned around – I knew my fellow Sheep Dogs were back there. This event was bigger than me and my dreams…this was bigger than all of us. I knew what I had to do. I took up a jog, and I went back the way I came.
This time I couldn’t hear my legs though, because the tunnel was flooded with the sound of over 2,000 West Point cadets chanting “USA! USA!”
My platoon leader was a “Pointer” and his orders saved my life that day in 2011. My doctor, the greatest man I will ever know – who wasn’t able to save my feet, but saved my heart from the darkness of identity loss – had over 100 years of West Point in his family. I will never have the honor of leading men into combat again, but maybe one of these men or women I am passing will be the next Kyle Wolfe or James Ficke.
With a triumphant roar, we ran passed each other. If I could inspire one of these future leaders to reach their full potential, everything I have done and been through would be worth it.
I ran past the last cadet, and in the haze that filled the tunnel, I saw them. A family of the unlikeliest sort, coming from all different walks of life, working together to achieve more. To empower themselves and each other, while honoring those before them.
I called out to my Sheep Dogs, and they all cheered back at me. I gratefully fell into the ranks, and together we slowly walked our way to becoming all that we could be.
About Sgt Matthew Melancon, US Army (Ret.): After joining the Army in 2008 at the age of 18, Sgt. Melancon served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. While on patrol in Afghanistan on Sept. 18, 2011, the MRAP he was riding in was hit by an IED; both his feet were shattered and ankles dislocated. Melancon’s injuries required two-dozen surgeries over a two-year period, and resulted in him electing to amputate both legs below the knee. His numerous awards include the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Purple Heart. He uses his experiences to help coach and mentor others struggling with their own injuries, is a motivational speaker, and is training to vie for a position on Team USA’s 2018 Paralympic Snowboarding Team. To this day, he says that losing his legs was the best thing to ever happen to him.