BY KATHY CHANG
With chants of “Go, Brendan, Go!” by his fellow classmates at Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, Brendan O’Brien embarked on a solo 15-mile trek in the steady rain last week to raise awareness and money for the plight of military veterans.
The run on Feb. 23 included a police entourage from the New Jersey State Police and officers from the Edison, Woodbridge, Perth Amboy and Sayreville departments.
Woodbridge Police Detective Joelle Slossberg, in full uniform, joined Brendan for part of the run to show her support.
The 17-year-old senior has spent five months studying issues that veterans face upon their return to civilian life for a Capstone research seminar project.
“I was appalled,” he said of the findings in his research of the rates of suicide, unemployment and homelessness among men and women who have served in the military in recent years. “Veterans are waiting six to eight months for a visit to the VA [Veterans Affairs Hospital].”
Brendan comes from a military lineage. His father, Cliff O’Brien Jr., is a former United States Marine and the student’s brother, Cliff O’Brien III, a Wardlaw-Hartridge School alum, is a sophomore at Dickinson College enrolled in the Dickinson Army Reserve Officers Training Corps as a second lieutenant.
The young O’Brien noted that he recognized five months is not a lot of time to study the issue, but it was more than enough time to comprehend the enormity of a “disturbing” problem.
“I think it is appalling that these brave men and women are not helped more upon their return to civilian life,” he said.
Brendan said along with his Capstone research seminar project, he wanted to do something on a personal level to raise awareness for the mistreatment of veterans and thought the solo “Raise the Flag Run” for the Travis Manion Foundation from his school to his home in Sayreville was fitting for symbolic reasons.
“My school is a place I go to during the day and my home is where my family is,” he said, noting that not all veterans have these safe havens of a job to go to or a loving home.
The Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based Travis Manion Foundation follows the mantra, “If not me, then who?” words spoken by Manion, a first lieutenant with the Marine Corps, who was killed on April 29, 2007, in the Al Anbar province of Iraq when ambushed while searching a suspected insurgent house.
Manion led the counterattack against enemy forces and was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded comrades. He was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor.
The Travis Manion Foundation, which was founded by Manion’s mother in 2007, engages with veterans and families of the fallen in all stages of their personal journeys and offers them unique opportunities to empower them to achieve their goals.
Before Brendan’s trek, Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey presented a bracelet to him from Robert Delmonaco’s family. Delmonaco, 21, a lifelong Edison resident, passed away on Oct. 3, 2014. He was serving in the 102nd Calvary of the United States Army at the time of his passing.
Lankey said it is important to “not forget,” adding that the motto of the Travis Manion Foundation that Brendan is running for stood out to him.
“The motto of the foundation is, ‘If not me, then who?’ and I have always said ‘If not now, then when?,’” he said. “This is a perfect when.”
Lankey said homelessness, health care and getting financing for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is near and dear to his heart since he works in the health care sector.
“I appreciate what you are doing and I am honored to be here with you to see you off,” he said to the young man.
Andy Webster, head of Wardlaw-Hartridge School, said one of the great things about the Capstone research seminar project is that it allows students to study personal passions of their own.
“As hard as this run will be, the research paper and presentation will be just as hard,” he said. His comment drew laughter from those who saw Brendan off on the run.
Webster said Brendan’s personal project is very impressive.
“We as our nation have lost our way in a way; we lost our ability to treat well of our veterans sent abroad in foreign wars,” he said. “And those who made sacrifices [come home] to find out the promises to provide the care they need are empty and difficult to achieve.”
Webster said that is something that “we all believe needs to change.”
“Brendan is our flag bearer for us today in making that point and we are very proud,” he said.
Brendan was inspired to run by an effort made by his Capstone mentor, a west coast veterans coordinator with the Travis Manion Foundation who ran 3,025 miles in 2012 to raise money for the organization.
“I know my 15-mile run is a meager gesture, but if my run gains the attention of one individual who otherwise didn’t know about the needs of those who bravely served our nation, then I think my mission will be accomplished,” he said.
After the run, which took about two hours, Brendan was met by family and friends waving American flags and hugs and kisses.
Donations from members of the American Legion Post 211 Honor Guard in Sayreville, from Sayreville Mayor Kennedy O’Brien and from council members were presented to Brendan.
Mel Meszaros of Monroe, a former United States Marine who was part of Brendan’s entourage, presented the Edison student with a medal that included black sand from Mount Suribachi. Meszaros said he visited the site during the 60th anniversary of Iwo Jima in 2005.
The symbolism was reflected in Brendan running on the anniversary of the day in 1945 that United States Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi after the Battle for Iwo Jima.
Brendan, with a smile, said his trek went well despite feeling himself tighten up halfway through the run, as well as the last hill toward his home in Sayreville.
He added that to have Slossberg join him for part of the run was amazing.
“The fact that they [the police officers] even followed me the whole way, the fact that [she] got out and started running with me … it just brought chills down my spine, it was the greatest thing ever,” he said.
Contact Kathy Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.