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5K run raises funds for wounded Afghan vet

Marine First Lieutenant James Byler who lost both

Marine First Lieutenant James Byler who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, with Marine recruiters and recruits from Smithtown who participated in a 5K fundraiser put together by high school senior John Feinberg in South Huntington. (May 20, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

John Feinberg had the megaphone. James Byler had aluminum legs.

Among all the Marine recruits, high school track runners, monks in robes and moms with strollers who gathered at the start of the 5K run at St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington Sunday, you couldn't miss these two.

Byler is 26, a Marine lieutenant from Huntington who stepped on an improvised explosive device leading a patrol in Afghanistan two years ago. He is one of about six veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have returned to Long Island with one or more limbs amputated, according to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Feinberg is 18, from Mount Sinai, a senior at St. Anthony's and president of the school's Support Our Troops club. He organized the race, which raised about $3,000 toward a retrofit of Byler's family home that will make it easier for him to navigate as he prepares for a Wall Street internship and business school in the fall.

They first met in March, at an Islanders game where Byler received a standing ovation from the crowd. "I saw how he thought about his service, about the sacrifice he made, and it made an impact on me: He hates war, but he did what he had to, to protect our country," Feinberg said. "I was impressed," Byler remembered. "For somebody that young to be organizing all this is incredible."

Feinberg began preparing in the fall. Designing the racecourse was the easy part, accomplished with Google Maps. In the afternoons after classes he also handled permits, street closures, police oversight, medical backup, sponsorships and entertainment, working with the office of a sympathetic Huntington councilman, Mark Mayoka. He printed business cards to make himself seem more official, but there was no disguising his age in meetings.

"I had some misgivings," said Andy Pujol, president of Building Homes for Heroes, the Valley Stream group handling the retrofit. "But you realize young men and women [who] may be the exact same age are in firefights in Afghanistan right now, you think, 'Let's give this kid a shot.' "

Before therace started, Feinberg and Byler posed for pictures together, but Byler was the star. All through the afternoon, well-wishers approached to shake his hand and thank him.

He handled it with aplomb, but said in an interview that he "never thought this kind of thing would propel me to being sort of a celebrity. It's definitely at times a little overwhelming."

Then more pictures, this time with about 20 Marine recruits over from Smithtown. He missed being in the Marines more than anything, he'd said earlier. "Going out on patrol, sleeping in a field. I communicate with some of the guys on Facebook, but it's not the same. The best I can do is reminisce."

He did not share this with the young men who stood at attention in front of him. "You've got an amazing thing ahead of you," he told them. "It's a brotherhood that will last for a lifetime. The best thing that ever happened to me was joining the Marines, and I do not regret a day of it," he said.

The Marine recruits thanked him, then chanted "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and joined the other runners.

Matt Rebolini, 17, a junior at Walt Whitman High School, won the race in 17 minutes, 11.8 seconds.

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