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Private Heath Warner

In an instant your life can change. For me that took place on November 22, 2006 when three uniformed Marines came into the front room of my house and notified my wife, Melissa, and I that our son had been killed by an IED in the Al-Anbar Province, Iraq. I remember my head was spinning trying to process the words our son was dead. I would not wish this on anyone as it is not for the faint of heart.

Over the last eight years, I never imagined how hard the grieving process would be on my family. We were a young family; I was 43, Melissa had just turned 40, and the boys were 14 and 7. People say there are five stages of grief. Well, I threw that concept out the window because it was complete craziness to me. It was more of a perfect storm for personal crisis.

How do you resolve something that seems so overwhelming? It appeared as if I was wandering in a maze trying to find a way out, but I could never seem to find it. The loneliness of grief is dark, heavy, and it is so hard to move forward. Each day was a new challenge to wake up, go to work, and be a husband and father. In some ways, I felt like my son’s life was like a fog that was slowly fading away and so was I. Somehow I had to dig deep to pull myself out of the pit to survive.

Early on it became important for me to create a legacy for my son, Heath. He was so young and brave. A life cut short before he had a chance to live. As I look back over the last eight years, I am in disbelief at the complete unpredictability of my life. I really did not what that would mean or how it would happen, but I knew somehow, some way, I would succeed. This became my way for finding a path to healing. God had held on to me even when I did not realize it.

Initially, we thought of establishing a scholarship to memorialize our son. If he had lived, he wanted to work in education and help other youth realize their potential. Heath had worked hard to find his way. He was a talented break dancer and had a love for foreign languages and cultures. I was amazed how many diverse talents he possessed. Somehow a scholarship did not seem to capture all that he had become.

With that in mind, we set up an endowment fund with the Stark Community Foundation to create a donor-designated fund that would allow the family to incorporate numerous projects that would help youth, surviving military families and returning veterans in their recovery and return to civilian life all in the memory of Heath.

To fund the endowment, we needed to establish a fundraiser. At the time, I had become a runner which helped me to cope with my grief. I started off doing a walk/run. I became addicted to the endorphins because I could not stop running. Before I knew it, I was running 5K’s, 10K’s and even participated in team marathon events. From the events, I remember thinking…”I could be a race director and do a race in Heath’s memory.”

The first race, The Pvt. Heath Warner Memorial 5K Run and Family Fun Walk, was held on Memorial Day, May 26, 2008. With all the efforts of a great team of volunteers, sponsors, the Subway Challenge Series, the City of Canton and veterans, the event was a great success. We were humbled and appreciative of the participants who came out to support our efforts to honor our son and all those who have given the last full measure for freedom.

Fast forward to 2014, I am proud to say the race has found a way to move forward and has emerged into a premiere running event in the greater northeast Ohio area. The mission is a simple one–to impact and change lives. The run has evolved over the years. The event is held in conjunction with Jackson Township Rotary’s Field of Heroes and Field of Honor which is held annually over Memorial Day weekend. The Pvt. Heath Warner Memorial Run – Running to Remember is now a two-mile and four-mile that is a family friendly event. The race is unique in that it is not only a race but a Memorial Day observance. We honor and remember not just Heath, but all the fallen. We believe those who participate are touched in a special way and when Taps is played at the opening ceremony before the race starts, they are inspired to run and remember.

Three years ago Annie Arvidson, principal at McGregor Elementary School in Canton, approached my wife, who works at the school, to create a youth running program. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Melissa and Annie as we laughed coming up with ideas for a curriculum that would keep the interest of fifth and sixth graders which would include making good choices for eating, exercising and self-confidence. In 2012, the Heart of the Hero youth running was launched. It consists of a six-week running program which culminates in the youth running the Pvt. Heath Warner Memorial Run. For those students who keep the commitment, the school provides new running shoes for each student. For those of us who have the privilege of watching the youth crossing the finish line and being recognized at the end with a special medal, the big smiles and bright eyes of accomplishment are priceless!

Each year it seems God has something new for the event. Last year, at the request of the girls at McGregor Elementary, we had our first co-ed Heart of the Hero race. This year we will premiere the Walking with a Hero program for kindergarten through second graders and fourth through sixth graders will be able to participate in the run. I am so looking forward to watching all these young children learn to accomplish a goal and running and walking past the parade of flags to cross the finish line.

Somehow God has turned tragedy into advocacy. In the last eight years, only through the generosity and support of the community, Heath’s legacy has touched the lives of so many people…beyond my dreams. From helping fund the start of Boyz to Men youth mentoring program at the Monroe Community Center (now celebrating its fifth year), providing seed money to start equine therapy for surviving families at Solid Rock Therapeutic Riding Center, creating the Boulevard of Heroes to Honor Stark County’s Fallen with Banners, and promoting legislation to help surviving families, good has blossomed into a beautiful flower which this father would have never imagined. I simply wanted to honor my son.

I know Heath is in heaven and when I picture him, all I can see it that big bright smile and sparkling eyes on his face. I think he would be embarrassed if he was alive from the attention he has received in his death. He was a shy, quiet young man. All I can say is this one is for you Kiddo! All my love, Dad.

Private Heath Warner

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