Tears and cheers as Legion Riders give to Wounded Warriors

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Lots of 0s: Marissa Strock, right, points to the $10,000 figure on a check being presented Sunday by the Helderberg Post’s American Legion Riders to the Wounded Warrior Project. Strock a Wounded Warrior alumna, says she has no regrets about her Army service despite having both legs amputated.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Home of the brave”: Raymond J. “Jack” Clark listens to “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of a ceremony at the American Legion Post on Sunday. He accepted a check of $10,000 from the American Legion Riders for the Wounded Warrior Project, which his son, Todd, had been a part of after being wounded in Afghanistan.  Todd Clark recovered and returned for a fifth combat tour, and was killed in action last June.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Gift from the heart: Members of the Helderberg Post’s American Legion Riders, Steve Oliver, standing behind the check at left, and Jim Gaige, at center, present $10,000 to representatives of the Wounded Warrior Project: Kyle Clark, at far left, Jack Clark, standing at the right side of the check, and, next to him, Marissa Strock, a Wounded Warrior alumna. In current wars, 16 American soldiers come home injured for every one killed; in World War II, two were injured for everyone killed.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“What so proudly we hailed”: Knox native and country singer Renée Lussier gives a rousing rendition Saturday of the national anthem at the start of an emotion-packed ceremony at the Helderberg Post of the American Legion in Altamont.

ALTAMONT — The retired Army colonel cried.

Raymond J. Clark, known as Jack to his friends, stood before a score of men and a handful of women at the American Legion Post on Sunday afternoon to accept money raised for the Wounded Warrior Project.

“I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart,” said Clark, his voice thick with emotion.

“My son was killed in action,” he went on, his voice breaking as the tears flowed.

Others in the room — manly men, some with beards, some in leather vests, some in plaid shirts — were silently weeping, too.

Lt. Col. Todd J. Clark, a career Army leader and a married father of two, was killed in Afghanistan on June 8. He was 44. He had been raised in Guilderland where his parents still live.

Todd Clark and two others were killed when a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his weapon against them, according to the United States Department of Defense.

His funeral in June had filled St. Madeleine Sophie Church, where he had been married, as schoolchildren lined the road, saluting the motorcade that escorted his hearse.

Clark came to Sunday’s ceremony with his son Kyle who has long been active in the Wounded Warrior Project, a national not-for-profit organization that has the motto, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.”

The Altamont Post and its Legion Riders had raised $10,000 for the Wounded Warriors this summer with its inaugural Poker Run, which the group plans to make an annual event.

Marissa Strock was also on hand for the event as she and Clark accepted a giant, cardboard check.

Beneath her black Capris, she wore New Balance sneakers with hot pink soles, attached to prosthetics. Both of her legs had been amputated at mid-calf after her Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device.

“I got hurt in ’05 in Baghdad,” said Strock, who grew up in the Capital Region and joined the Army at 19. She was injured two years later, on Nov. 24, 2005.

While she was recovering at Walter Reed Military Hospital, Strock said of the Wounded Warrior Project, “They showed up in my hospital room.”

Described now as an alumna of the program, she is still a supporter. She and her fiancé, Joshua St. John, are preparing to move to Michigan, she said, for college; he hopes to study prosthetics, and she thinks she’ll study nutrition.

Asked if she regretted her Army service, Strock answered quickly, “No.”

She went on, “I could have been hit by a bus on Thanksgiving…If I hadn’t served, I wouldn’t have met Kyle and Jack,” she said of the Clarks. “And I wouldn’t know him,” she said, smiling at her fiancé. “I wouldn’t be here,” she said, looking around the room at the Wounded Warrior supporters.

The brief ceremony had opened with the Pledge to the Flag and Renée Lussier, a country western performer, singing the national anthem a capella with great feeling. Lussier said some of the Legion Riders had heard her sing at a Sept. 11 ceremony in Knox, where she was raised, and asked her to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” for Sunday’s ceremony.

The chaplain, flanked by a color guard, then said a prayer, asking God “to recognize our wounded brothers and sisters who lost so much and gave so much for God and country.”

“None of this would have been possible without the wonderful community we live in and the dedication of all our members,” organizer Steve Oliver then told the gathering.

A founding member of the local American Legion Riders, Oliver was in the Navy Seabees (that is, Construction Battalion — CB) for 10 years. He joined in 1980 and was out in 1987. But in the 1990s, when the United States led a United Nations coalition to free Kuwait from Iraqi troops (the Gulf War codenamed Operation Desert Storm), Oliver signed up again.

“All my buddies were going,” Oliver explained earlier. “You can take the uniform off, but it’s there for life,” he said of the commitment.

Oliver also said he was a disabled veteran, wearing aids to help him hear and getting rashes from substances he was exposed to in the Philippines. He went to the Stratton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albany to apply for benefits and vividly recalled the elevator ride.

“One guy was in a wheelchair and another was missing an arm,” he said. “I left and didn’t come back for 18 years. I didn’t feel I deserved it. A lot of guys won’t go because they have the same feelings I had.”

Jim Gaige, another original member of the Legion Riders, was part of the check presentation, too. He served in the Army from 1972 to 1975 and later joined the Seabees in the Navy Reserves. After two tours in Iraq, he retired with 26 years of service; he hated leaving the service. “I love the people,” he said.

Oliver said the organizers of the Poker Run, where motorcyclists ride to a series of venues to pick up cards, originally hoped to raise $2,500 and were gratified with the outpouring from the community — both from businesses and individuals.

After Sunday’s ceremony, as people mingled and ate pizza, Jack Clark said he was glad to be there.

“It’s fulfilling,” he said. He’s been asked to march in Albany’s Veterans Day parade, he said, which will also honor his son.

“It’s carrying on a family tradition,” Clark said of military service. His grandfather served in World War I, his father in World War II, and he served during the Cold War.

His son Todd served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was on five combat tours. “On the fourth, he was hit with an IED,” said Clark, referring to his July 2010 injury. He spent eight months recuperating at Walter Reed and got involved in the Wounded Warrior Project.

“He got promoted to lieutenant colonel,” said Clark, and returned to Afghanistan for his fifth and final tour as a senior advisor to the Afghan National Army.

Clark also said, “I’m a retired colonel. I shouldn’t break down but it hits very close to home…I’m just overwhelmed with the support of the community…It just keeps going on…Everyone wants to be part of it.”

Clark had concluded his remarks at the podium by saying, “I’m still serving. My son’s still serving. Marissa is still serving. We’ll be here for everyone. We’ve got a job to do.”

Marissa Strock gave him a hug.

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