Merced event honoring fallen war heroes draws 1,076 runners
Number of participants has more than doubled, says organizers
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Robin Hopper wore a small gold star pinned to her white T-shirt honoring her beloved son, Pfc. Lukas Hopper, as a flurry of joggers zipped past in Merced’s Applegate Park on Saturday.

Talking about her son, a 20-year-old Golden Valley High graduate who died almost two years ago in a Humvee crash in Baghdad, is still emotional. Yet it was encouraging to be among friends and supporters who haven’t forgotten her son and among family and friends of others who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.

“This is just a huge honor for him and the sacrifice that he made for us and our country,” said Hopper. “It continues to be difficult, but these kind of events help us have the strength to keep going.”

Merced County mothers of soldiers and Marines who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan were present in Applegate Park for Saturday’s Run for the Fallen. Shown here, left to right, are Terri Pickard, mother of Joshua Pickard, Maria Granados, mother of Cesar Granados, Robin Hopper, mother of Lukas Hopper, Anita Richards, mother of Frank Gasper, Karen Binion, mother of Matthew Abbate, and Diane Layfield, mother of Travis Layfield. PHOTO: Victor A. Patton, Merced Sun-Star

Died in war zones since 9/11
Karina Lau, Nov. 2, 2003
Travis J. Layfield, April 6, 2004
Cesar A. Granados, Sept. 15, 2006
Joshua Pickard, Dec. 19, 2006
Frank J. Gasper, May 25, 2008
Janelle F. King, Aug. 14, 2008
Lukas C. Hopper, Oct. 30, 2009
David Hartman, Feb. 3, 2010
Matthew Abbate, Dec. 2, 2010
Vincent Wayne Ashlock, Dec. 4, 2010

Hopper was one of several parents present Saturday for the Second Annual Run for the Fallen in Merced, a four-mile run honoring soldiers and Marines who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Organizers said this year’s event attracted 1,076 runners and more than 1,500 total attendees — more than double the number who participated last year. The run began about 8 a.m., and the route proceeded from the park to McKee Road and back. Registration for the event was free.

Every half-mile along the route stood a photograph of a fallen soldier or Marine, as a reminder of the price paid.

Before the run, friends and supporters of the fallen heroes gathered for a remembrance service. Terri Pickard, mother of late Marine Cpl. Joshua Pickard, 20, said the high turnout was deeply encouraging. “Just the support of the community is overwhelming to me. I love it. I think all of the families feel very special that someone would take their time to come out,” Pickard said.

The first person who completed Saturday’s run was 17-year-old Mark Machado of Buhach Colony High’s Thunder boy’s cross-country team. A senior with a 4.0 grade-point average, Machado strode across the finish line with a time of 23 minutes, 24 seconds.

Machado was at the event with his coach, Alfonso Garcia, and about half of his team. Garcia, the school’s track coach and a Marine veteran of Desert Storm, played an active role in the run, setting up the route and motivating participants with a loudspeaker.

Garcia pointed out that Joshua Pickard was a 2004 graduate of Buhach High. He also played football there. Garcia said the focus of the event for him and the cross-country team was “the cause and why we remember our heroes.”

Garcia added that the young people on the team “know the story of Josh Pickard and the other fallen soldiers and Marines.”

Several family members who were on hand, such as 44-year-old Martha Rivera of Delhi, actually ran during the event. Rivera’s little sister was Karina Lau, 20, who was killed in 2003 with 15 others when the Chinook helicopter they rode in was shot down west of Baghdad.

Rivera’s husband, Benjamin Rivera, served in Desert Storm. Her younger brother, 38-year-old Luis Lau, serves in the U.S. Navy. “I am so happy that so many people showed up,” Rivera said. “I am amazed. I didn’t think it was going to be this big.”

The run was emotional for family members such as Cassandra Granados, whose big brother Cesar Granados, 21, of Le Grand, died in Baghdad when his vehicle was struck by an explosive. “My brother gave everything,” Granados said, tears rolling down her face.

The event attracted several people from outside Merced. Modesto resident Debra Moore was at the event with her family to remember her son, Spc. Cody James Moore, 21, a decorated soldier who died after his return to Kentucky from combat in Afghanistan.

Wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt with a photo of her son, Moore also attended last year’s Merced event. “These people and their families sacrifice everything for our country. And we need to support them,” she said.

The main sponsors of the Merced event were Merced County Blue Star Mothers and Families, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The Merced event was one of two runs held Saturday in California, with the other event happening in Long Beach, according to the website Other Run for the Fallen events were held nationwide, as far east as Maine.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or

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