For Dr. Merritt Pember, an orthopedic surgeon and a veteran U.S. Army Major who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom in Bagdad, creating the Run for the Flag event was the culmination of his experiences. As a surgeon in Bagdad, he treated soldiers for gunshot wounds, explosions, burns, and amputations, and after that service, he returned to the United States to join a practice called Direct Orthopedic Care, relocating to Austin to open an office in the area. Dr. Pember remembers then talking with his wife about his growing need to be of service.
“Call it a midlife crisis,” said Pember, “I decided to make changes in the way that I see and participate in the world, and I was excited to start giving back more than I used to.”
He noticed that Austin was a runners’ town. “My wife and I would see runners and joggers all day and at all hours of the night,” he said. So the idea for a fun run was born. A friend connected him to a national nonprofit Folds of Honor, which raises money to fund scholarships for the spouse and children of wounded and deceased veterans. “And then it occurred to me,” said Dr. Pember, “At the practice, we have several physicians who were veterans, and that kind of put it all together for me.”
The inaugural Run for the Flag will take place on November 11, Veterans Day, in Pflugerville. The nonprofit Folds of Honor has been a primary motivator for this first-time race organizer. “Their mission really hit close to home for me,” said Pember. “It seems to be pretty easy to fall of the radar that we have folks around the world that are getting shot at every day for our benefit, coming home wounded physically and emotionally. I felt like Americans need to know what is going on in their name.”
In fact, Folds of Honor was founded as a way to remember and recognize the veterans’ service as well as the service of their families. In 2007, Maj. Dan Rooney, an F-16 fighter pilot was returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq, when his flight landed and passengers were asked to remain seated until the casket of a fallen soldier was deboarded. More than half of the passengers ignored the request.
“I had been a fighter pilot for 19 years at that point,” Rooney remembers. “I think the worst thing to say about it was that I was thoroughly disappointed.” Since its founding, Folds of Honor has awarded scholarships to more than 16,000 spouses and children of killed or disabled veterans. But Rooney says, the first scholarship has been the most meaningful. It was awarded to the son of the soldier who had been carried off the plane. “He was the inspiration,” said Rooney, “and he holds a place near and dear to our hearts.”
Pember said creating the race has been “quite the undertaking,” but his memories of the wounded in Iraq keep him going. “I was lucky enough to come home with two arms and two legs, but many of the folks I took care of did not. To be able to fund the scholarships for families who gave more to their country than I could have ever hoped to do.”
NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 5, 2017.