Turkey Trot honors Huntington Marine who lost both legs

Marine Lt. James Byler, of Huntington, lost his

Marine Lt. James Byler, of Huntington, lost his legs in Afghanistan in October. (Credit: Handout)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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This morning, when 34 Boy Scouts, leaders and alumni of Huntington's Troop 78 run the traditional 4-mile Turkey Trot, they'll be running for one of their own.

Marine Lt. James Byler lost both legs after stepping on an IED in October, his family said, while patrolling a narrow alley in one of the deadliest provinces in Afghanistan. The troop members are running to raise money to build a special ramp and other renovations at his parents' house so that he returns to a home where he can live with a measure of independence.

Byler, the infantry platoon leader, has spent time in several hospitals since his men, members of the Third Battalion, 5th Marines out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., sped him away from the scene that morning in Afghanistan, when they used a wheelbarrow to get him to medical help.

Byler, 25, a Huntington High School graduate who worked his way to Eagle Scout with Troop 78 before heading off to Purdue University and the Marines, suffered other injuries, including damage to fingers on both hands. On Tuesday, he was moved from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was awarded a Purple Heart, then taken to nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to be fitted for prosthetic legs, said his father, Phil Byler.

In a recent Facebook posting, the younger Byler promised, "I'll be back up trying out my sea legs in no time."

When word of Byler's injuries reached back home to Huntington, the community acted. Members of Central Presbyterian Church, where Byler was a member of the youth group and played guitar in the youth band, took over some household chores, including raking leaves, said Pastor R. David Aldridge. "We wanted to make it as easy as possible on the family, who have been active here for a long time, to take care of more important things," he said.

Members of the Huntington Tri-Village baseball and softball league, where the family also is active, stepped up as well. Meanwhile, a group of Boy Scouts and their leaders - most of whom had never met Byler or his family - gathered to determine what they could do, too.

"We decided that we wanted to do the race," said Kevin Broshek, an 11-year-old sixth-grader. "We decided that we wanted to raise money to build a ramp and do other things in his house to make it easier for him to come back home."

And so the Scouts reached out even deeper into the community, using e-mails. They found sponsors for their run, and other support as well.

Mark Distante, head of M. Distante Construction & Renovations in Huntington, has agreed to donate labor for a ramp and renovations. He, in turn, is reaching out to suppliers for donations of materials. "Anything to welcome a local hero home," he said.

One of Kevin's e-mails reached Kevin O'Neill, who, with his wife, is co-owner of the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, where Byler's mother, Janet, teaches school. O'Neill responded immediately.

"I told [Kevin's mother] that we're going to plan a benefit," O'Neill said, "with 100 percent of the profits going to help that young man."

Byler's ordeal resonates deeply with O'Neill. The theater is named in memory of his brother-in-law, Army CW4 John William Engeman of East Northport, who was killed in 2006 at age 45 after an IED detonated near his HUMVEE in Iraq.

Byler, in a wheelchair, attended the funeral of a fellow Marine at Arlington National Cemetery. "He wants, desperately, to be back with his men," said Phil Byler.

Thursday, the Byler family will celebrate Thanksgiving at Walter Reed together - which, according to his father, had become a rarity in recent years since both James and his older brother, John, 27, an Army captain stationed at Fort Drum, were away stateside or in combat.

"I share James' view, which is that he is lucky to be alive," said his father, a lawyer who works in Manhattan during the week and joins his wife and son at the hospital on weekends.

The Scouts will be celebrating James' life Thursday too, with specially made T-shirts with his picture and words such as trustworthy that the Scouts say describe their local hero.

"They're running because he can't," said Kevin's mom, Susan Broshek.

But, according to James' father, someday he will.