UCF Welcomes Wounded Warriors, Families of Fallen Heroes

UCF Welcomes Wounded Warriors, Families of Fallen Heroes

Wounded warriors and gold-star family members at the start of the 5K race. (Photo: eventmugshots.com)

About 2,000 runners and walkers gathered on campus Saturday to honor and raise money for wounded warriors and families who have lost loved ones serving in the military.

UCF hosted Operation Giveback’s third-annual signature event, 5K, 10K and 15K road races that raised $80,000.

“Our outstanding wounded warriors and military families have given so much so that all of us can enjoy our freedom and quality of life,” said José Garcia-Aponté, the retired Army command sergeant major who founded Operation Giveback with his wife, Maribel.

“We want to show our appreciation for the sacrifices they have made and give the wounded warriors and military families the opportunity to get to know each other. Many of them stay in touch and support each other after they leave Orlando.”

UCF has hosted Operation Giveback’s races the past three years. Below a large U.S. flag held up by fire engines, about 20 wounded warriors led the start of the 5K race.

UCF Provost and Executive Vice President Tony Waldrop spoke during the opening ceremonies by the Veterans Commemorative Site on Memory Mall. The crowd applauded when he gestured toward the Classroom II building under construction and pointed out that it soon will be the new home of the university’s Army and Air Force ROTC programs.

Also before the races, the Oquendo family from Hillsborough County received Operation Giveback’s first “Make a Dream Come True Award.”

Decorated Army Sergeant First Class Paul D. Oquendo dreamed of taking his family to New York City for sightseeing and a Broadway show once his daughters were old enough to appreciate the experience.

Cancer prevented the Hillsborough County resident from fulfilling that dream. He died in September from a rare but aggressive form of cancer known as synovial sarcoma.

As a way to honor Oquendo for serving his country for 21 years, the Orlando nonprofit organization Operation Giveback will fly his family to New York City. They will stay at the luxurious Plaza Hotel and watch a Broadway show.

“This trip will mean so much to me, because I can share Paul’s dream for him,” said Dora Oquendo. “I know he is looking down and is smiling at this dream come true. My girls are going to be so excited.  We have told them lots of stories of New York.”

Operation Giveback’s mission is to raise awareness and resources for wounded warriors and their families, as well as the families of fallen heroes. The organization intends to fulfill one family’s dream each year.

Several UCF ROTC students volunteered at the event, and the Student Veterans Association, the Psychology Department’s Trauma Management Therapy program and UCF Athletics all set up tents on Memory Mall. The Trauma Management Therapy program treats veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are diagnosed with PTSD.