Ninth annual Sticks for Soldiers event Saturday
It was a normal day in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, hot and dusty.
That's what United States Army Sergeant First Class Mark Holbert remembers.
It was August 16, 2010 and Holbert's unit was responding to an explosion near the outer perimeter of the forward operating base. This was Holbert's fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. His previously three had ended without incident, but on that hot August day four years ago, everything changed.
"When we arrived at the explosion site, everyone was on alert waiting for an ambush, or worse, for someone to set off an improvised explosive device (IED)," Holbert said in telling his story to the www.thecharacterbuildingproject.com website. "Once the area was called cleared by our engineers, everyone started to walk around the explosion site."
Holbert and his team were looking for anything, or anyone, suspicious. Finding nothing, Holbert started to walk back to the rest of his unit -- and stepped on an IED.
Medics rushed to his aid and Holbert was loaded onto a helicopter. The last thing Holbert said that he remembered was a female British nurse saying that she was going to put him to sleep.
He awoke in the Intensive Care Unit of Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C.
Six weeks later.
On Saturday at the Ninth Annual Sticks for Soldiers charity lacrosse tournament at Roger Ludlowe High School, Holbert, 36, along with United States Marine Corps Sergeant Aaron Alonso, 26, will be honored as the beneficiaries for this year's tournament. The money raised will be distributed to both Holbert and Alonso in late February or early March of 2015 for use to improve their family lives in whatever ways they feel are necessary.
"Holding this tournament is a moving experience that has grown well beyond the Fairfield community," tournament chairman Jim Tommins said. "The timing of Thanksgiving weekend couldn't be any more fitting as we say thank you in our own way to brave soldiers like Sergeant First Class Holbert and Sergeant Alonso. Both have sacrificed so much for defending our freedom and both face significant challenges that we could never imagine."
The IED took both of Holbert's legs, the right leg was amputated above the knee and the left was amputated at the hip after infection set in. He lost a thumb, half a middle finger and had nerve damage along one forearm.
This past February 8, Alonso, a squad leader with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Bravo Company, lost both his legs and suffered severe abdominal injuries to an IED explosion while on patrol in Nad Ali, Afghanistan. In the nine months since the incident, Alonso has undergone over 100 surgical procedures but his recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. In August, Alonso wheeled himself to the finish in a 5K road race and climbed all 88 steps to the top of the Lincoln Memorial -- without using his prosthetics.
And while his recovery process continues today, Alonso's wife Jessica, told www.nj.com that because of her husband's "strength, courage and determination," he's going to "make an amazing recovery."
Over its previous eight years, the Sticks for Soldiers tournament has raised over $330,000 through entry fees, silent auctions, merchandise sales and corporate and private donations. This year, starting at 9 a.m., over 60 boys and girls lacrosse teams, totaling over 900 participants, will take part in playing more than 125 games over the course of the day.
Teams from over a donzen schools will participate. There will be a mid-day ceremony with a Military Honor Guard to introduce and recognize the honorees. Admission is free.
Over the past four years, Holbert has worked endlessly to walk again and has -- thanks to special prosthetics.
"That was my greatest challenge, learning how to walk all over again," he told www.mcopro.com. "And the tools that MCOP provided were state-of-the-art technology of the knees and whatever was new on the market, they would try it. With their knowledge of putting the prosthetics together, patients are able to overcome anything."
Today, Holbert plays golf. He completed the Marine Corps marathon, was re-certified for his scuba license, ran an Army 10-mile race and twice did the 200-mile American Odyssey race -- from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington D.C., using a hand-cycle.