Warriors honor soldiers in Long Beach
"God Bless America" played and horns blared as Marine Master Sgt. John Hayes waved from a gray van to onlookers lining Beech Street in Long Beach with American flags in their hands, thanking him and all of the wounded soldiers passing by in trucks and convertibles.
The parade was part of a nearly weeklong vacation Hayes is spending in Long Beach with his wife and three daughters, who will get to relax on the beach and take surf lessons.
For Hayes, 32, of St. Augustine, Fla., who lost his legs when a bomb exploded in 2010 in Afghanistan and has been rehabilitating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., since then, it is a special opportunity.
Hayes is one of 20 soldiers and their families the nonprofit Long Beach Waterfront Warriors honored with a 5K run and parade Sunday as part of the group's effort to give military members and their families a relaxing vacation.
"This is time for me to do things with my family without medical appointments," said Hayes, who also participated in the program last year. "For me, it's bonding with my family. They're how I got through this."
Tria Reuss, 68, of Long Beach, went to the parade to say thanks.
"It's saying thanks to them and their service and their sacrifice, and their family's sacrifice," she said.
The Waterfront Warriors, assisting wounded and ill soldiers for its fifth year, welcomed about 55 people to Long Beach on Friday and will host them until Wednesday, providing a variety of activities such as fishing trips and surf lessons. The activities are free for the soldiers and their families.
On Friday, the group traveled into Manhattan to see Ground Zero and have lunch with firefighters. Monday, they can choose to go to a New York Mets game.
The soldiers, who like Hayes are recuperating at Walter Reed, are staying with families who volunteer their homes, or at the Allegria Hotel.
Last year, the Waterfront Warriors hosted more families. Earlier this year, the group wasn't sure whether the event would go on because of the damage caused by superstorm Sandy, co-chair Jamie Lynch said. "But, the community came out and said we need to do it," Lynch said at a barbecue after the parade. "It's going great. As hard as we were hit, this is what Long Beach is about."
The Waterfront Warriors raises money with events at local restaurants, and also receives donations for many of the activities in which the soldiers participate.
Hayes completed the 5K race in the morning, finishing with his daughter, Katelyn, 12, and having his wheelchair pushed by Gerry Snell, another co-chair of the Waterfront Warriors.
For the week, Hayes said he is grateful to the community of Long Beach who welcomed him and the other soldiers.
"It makes us feel good," he said. "To an injured service member, it can often feel like you're alone. You can't ever feel like that here."