Veterans Race And Fair Slated For June 26 In Whitehouse

Jason Graven, a 1998 Anthony Wayne graduate and Army veteran, founded Task Force 20 to help veterans with gym memberships and other resources. He is hosting the Sunday, June 26 Operation: Stronger Together 5K and Resource Fair at Whitehouse Park, but encourages participants to stroll down the street to the Veterans Memorial Park. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — During his three years, one month and 10 days in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jason Graven took part in many missions.

As the founder of Task Force 20, the 1998 Anthony Wayne graduate has an ongoing mission: to stop the tide of veteran suicides as a result of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or the feeling of isolation when returning to civilian life.

“There’s a direct correlation to mental health and exercise,” said Graven, whose Task Force 20 provides funds for gym memberships and links veterans to resources and support.

On Sunday, June 26 – the day before PTSD Awareness Day – Task Force 20 will host its second annual Operation: Stronger Together 5K. While nearly 200 veterans and their supporters are expected to come out to run or wheel the course from downtown Whitehouse, the event will include much more.

A 28-by-6-foot American flag made with the dog tags of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan will wheel into town for the day. The Global War on Terror Memorial Flag, created for Veterans and Athletes United (VAU), travels the country and by sheer luck was scheduled to be in Napoleon the day before, Graven said. He contacted the VAU about having the exhibit make a stop in Whitehouse for the day.

The 7,000 tags are in alphabetical order ranging from September 11, 2001 to December 31, 2017, then in chronological order after that. Blanks tags are on the wall to be filled in by those killed in action during the ongoing war on terror, according to the VAU. One of the names on that list is Lt. Col. Kevin Sonnenberg of McClure, who was 42 when he was killed on June 15, 2007 in Iraq. 

Shane Jernigan, who lives near McClure, will be the guest speaker during the Task Force 20 event. Jernigan was a member of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, during which time he finished in the top 10 in the Best Ranger Competition, was a special forces combat diver, iron distance triathlete and marathoner.

In 1994, he had a catastrophic parachute accident, falling 120 feet and breaking his back in six places, in addition to sustaining numerous other injuries. 

“They said I would never be an Army Ranger again – that I would be crippled the rest of my life,” said Jernigan. “At 23, they told me I was done with being a Ranger.”

Instead, Jernigan pushed himself to overcome the pain to bike and run until he could pass the PT test and remain in the Rangers until 2002, when the extent of his injuries caught up with him. With one of his legs amputated, Jernigan competes regularly across the U.S. and leads others in adaptive sports, including biking, snowboarding and ski biking.

“That’s how I got involved with Task Force 20,” he said. “I’ve been involved in this system and I have the knowledge to pass on, and we can find adaptive resources throughout the country,” he said.

Jernigan says he believes in Task Force 20’s mission to help veterans heal from PTSD and depression through physical activity, because he’s living proof. 

“I didn’t get better through physical therapy or the VA or civilian organizations,” he said. “It was through competition and pushing myself.”

Linking veterans up with each other and to resources is one of the goals of Task Force 20, Graven said. That’s why a veterans’ resource fair will include veteran-owned companies, organizations and vendors who provide goods and services geared toward veterans.

“Our core belief is that if a vet reaches out to us, maybe physical fitness isn’t right for them. So we are bringing in a variety of entities so veterans and their loved ones can see what’s out there,” Graven said.

The event kicks off at 9:00 a.m. with the singing of the national anthem by Kelsey Rodriguez, a former Ohio Army National Guard member who sings with the Amelia Airharts. Destyna Diaz, a 2021 Monclova Christian Academy graduate and nursing student at The University of Toledo, will sing “God Bless America.”

A Waterville resident, Destyna has been in choirs since she was a child, including the Children’s Choir of Northwest Ohio. In 2019, she was selected to sing at Carnegie Hall as part of an honors choir – a feat she hopes to repeat in 2023 as part of a young adult choir.

Her father, Juan Diaz, was a Marine veteran who died in 2015 of kidney failure – caused by pain medications for an injury to his leg during Operation Desert Shield. Destyna learned about Task Force 20 through Dave Gedman, a board member.

“Dave and my dad bonded over PTSD and being in the military. When I learned about Task Force 20, I felt it was a nice way to contribute to something that’s personal to me and my family,” she said, referring to her mom, Jentia Diaz.

Operation: Stronger Together will also feature a screening of a trailer for a film about Graven’s experience growing up in Chateau Estates, joining the Army after 9/11 and the decision to form Task Force 20, which has aided over 120 veterans in the past five years. The full film will be shown at an invitation-only event at Inverness Club in September, but the trailer can be viewed at https://youtu.be/miy9FszGgrU

“It’s a film about family and survival,” he said, noting that it will include interviews with other veterans.

The race begins at 10:00 a.m. and entries are still being accepted at tf20.org.

After the event, veterans are invited for a free lunch, provided by Warrior Wings of Wauseon, at the Whitehouse American Legion Post 384, which is a sponsor of the event.

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