Dew still clung to the grass and covered the Veterans Memorial at Memory Mall as volunteers and participants gathered early Saturday morning for the inaugural Operation Giveback 5K/10K/Kids Run.Walk.Roll to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.

Over 1,100 people signed up to participate and nearly 1,000 gathered to run, walk or roll the 5K or 10K course around the UCF campus to raise over $50,000 for wounded veterans.

The Wounded Warriors Project is a Jacksonville-based nonprofit organization that aims to help wounded military personnel around the country by connecting them with other organizations that can help to address their specific needs.

Many of the participants at Operation Giveback walked or ran to honor a family member or friend.

Scott Brady of Leesburg, Fla. ran the 5K while sporting a shirt that said “I’m running 4 my heroes” at the top and listed his friends who are currently deployed in each of the four branches of the military. The person at the very top of the list, Joseph Flory, has been Brady’s best friend since kindergarten and is currently in Iraq. “I did it for them,” Brady said. “When a friend told me about Operation Giveback, I knew I had to do it for them.”

Jose Garcia-Aponte came up with the idea for Operation Giveback. Garcia-Aponte is a retired Command Sergeant Major who served 29 years in the army and said his idea to develop Operation Giveback is his way of giving back to the community. “The army to me wasn’t a job, it was a dream. I have a passion for the military,” said Garcia-Aponte. “I love soldiers and this is why I still want to be involved with this community.”

Garcia-Aponte first thought of the idea for Operation Giveback when he saw Teresa Arciola on Oprah during the “America’s Bravest Families” show in January. Arciola’s son Michael was killed in Iraq in 2005, and was buried in Arlington national cemetery. Arciola would travel five hours one way to Arlington to visit her son’s grave and read his favorite childhood book Corduroy.

“When I heard Teresa’s story, I got so emotional. It broke my heart. So I told my wife that we had to do something to support the wounded warriors,” said Garcia-Aponte. “Oprah gave a call to action for everybody to do something in their community. My wife and I chose to answer that call so we developed Operation Giveback, and now it’s become a movement.”

Teresa Arciola was personally invited to the event, but was nervous about attending because she didn’t know anyone. That all changed when she heard it was to benefit the Wounded Warriors Project. “I knew about the organization because one of Michael’s friends had lost his leg in combat and Wounded Warriors was there for him,” Arciola said. “I think it’s so great what [Operation Giveback] is doing and I’m so glad that I could be here for the beginning of all of this.”

Members of the UCF Army ROTC 10-miler Team participated in Operation Giveback as part of their training.

Taylor Brodt, a junior history major at UCF and member of the UCF Army ROTC 10-miler Team, said the ROTC paid their way to compete in Operation Giveback. “ROTC paid our way into this race so we could support and also make a name for UCF ROTC.”

Among the thousand people participating in the race to honor a wounded family member or friend, to support the cause for wounded servicemen in general, or just to keep on a steady training regimen, a handful were actually wounded warriors themselves.

In May of 2009, an Iraqi carrying an AK-47 shot Sgt. First Class Charles Ray Armstead point blank in the stomach. Doctors thought he would only live for two hours because he had lost so much blood. He spent recovery time at Brooke Army Medical Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at Fort Hood.

Armstead rolled the course in his wheelchair.

Armstead first got involved with the Wounded Warriors Project during his time at Brooke Army Medical Center and heard about Operation Giveback through the Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood.

Armstead said that participating in Operation Giveback is another step in his recovery process. “It’s a big part of the process: getting out and about and meeting new people and seeing others who are going through the same things that you are going through,” Armstead said. “It’s great to see the support that everyone is showing for [the Wounded Warriors Project].”

In 2005, Sgt. Noé Santos was thrown out of his Humvee after it was hit by one of three Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq. His left leg was amputated at the hip after he arrived at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Santos said that the Wounded Warrior Project has been very helpful in his transition from military life and being wounded to going back to civilian life, from learning to walk again to even cooking, cleaning and bathing. He doesn’t like to call it a challenge. “I try to live one day at a time,” Santos said.

Santos said “it felt pretty darn good” to finish walking the 5K for Operation Giveback. “Everybody here and all the support really means the world to us,” Santos said. “I never had a doubt that I was going to finish. I was going to do it whether it took me crawling across the finish line.”

Source: Central Florida Future, Operation Giveback raises more than $50K by Katie Dees, Photo Editor. Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011. Updated: Monday, May 16, 2011 02:05.