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Wounded Servicemembers Take on 26.2-Mile Challenge in New York

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2006 – Dozens of war-wounded servicemembers lined up alongside the record crowd of 37,000 competitors for Nov. 5’s New York City Marathon.

Members of the so-called “Freedom Team” included both veterans and active duty personnel. Many lost limbs in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and are still undergoing therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“The best thing about this is you feel tired, and that makes you feel normal again,” said former Navy corpsman Elmer Dinglasan, who lost both of his legs in January after a land mine exploded under him in Iraq.

“Doc,” as Dinglasan is fondly nicknamed, and his teammates were sponsored by the Achilles Track Club, a group established “to encourage disabled people to participate in long distance running along with the general public,” according to the organization’s mission statement. A record 400 Achilles members participated in this year’s New York Marathon.

Some Freedom Team members had never been to New York and were obviously enjoying the sights and sounds of the city, according to Mary Estacion, a Pentagon Channel producer who, along with photographer Arik Dashevsky, followed several Freedom Team members as they competed in the race.The crew was accompanied by an off-duty New York police detective who volunteers his time to the Freedom Team and who urged spectators lining the course to cheer on these wounded warriors.

“You almost forget that they’re disabled,” said Estacion, “because they carry themselves like this was nothing.”

Freedom Team members started their journey just after 7 a.m. on Staten Island, crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as Air Force jets roared overhead. Athletes wound their way through all five boroughs of the city, with the final hilly miles taking them into Central Park to finish in front of the legendary restaurant Tavern on the Green. Several musical groups along the course helped lift participants’ spirits, including the Air Force Band “Afterburners.”

Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia cruised to victory in the women’s event in 2:25:05, while Brazilian Marilson Gomes Dos Santos won the men’s race in 2:09:58. American Olympic medalists Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi faded to sixth and 21st, respectively, in their divisions.

Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, running his first marathon, broke the three-hour barrier as he predicted he would, with a 2:59:36 effort. “Even after experiencing one of the hardest days of the Tour, nothing has ever left me feeling this bad,” he said at a post-race news conference.

But members of the Freedom Team made their arduous 26.2-mile journey look easy.

“You didn’t see them struggling,” said Estacion. “Compared to the other finishers, they didn’t look tired.”

Stories of Freedom Team members will be featured this week on the Pentagon Channel’s twice-daily newscast, “Around the Services.” Their stories also will be featured on Pentagon Channel podcasts, vodcasts and video on demand.

(David Mays is assigned to the Pentagon Channel.)

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