By Dustin Luca
As 2,313 runners lined up for the Run for the Troops 5K on Sunday morning, Marine Cpl. Kevin Dubois sat in The Center at Punchard and reflected on the year since he was named the 2013 race honoree.
It was his first return to Andover after last year’s Run for the Troops helped raise funds to build his Burrillville, R.I., home.
The house was finished in December, just weeks before Dubois and his wife, Kayla, welcomed their first son to the family.
“The people brought us back (to Andover),” Dubois said. “The town is huge, and 2,000 for a 5K? That’s pretty awesome. I came back because this needs a lot of support.”
Sunday’s turnout represented a more than 30 percent increase in race participants over last year — all coming out to support the Taunton-based Homes For Our Troops, which builds specially designed houses for handicapped soldiers in need.
Also rising sharply was the number of teams joining the cause, with five times as many groups signing onto the event, according to Steve Moland, who oversaw race registrations.
Matching the powerful turnout Sunday was equally gorgeous weather, with not a cloud seen in the sky for a fourth year in a row.
“Something we get really excited about is the weather,” Moland said. “We’ve had this kind of weather every year.”
While organizers are still tallying how much was raised through the race as well as a companion Run for the Troops dinner held last Friday night, an uptick in the final total was also expected.
Randstad Technologies, based in Woburn, fielded the largest race team. Numbering about 150 runners, the team also raised well over $5,000 in donations. Randstad’s vice president, Peter Clark of Andover, has been a Run for the Troops regular.
Another well-represented team was the Merrimack Valley Striders, which had 91 runners donning red shirts for the race. Many also attended the fundraising dinner in a show of support.
Team member Chuck McAllister said the reason for the involvement “is obvious.”
“You meet the people who come back, have given much more than I’ve ever had to, and you get a little teary-eyed thinking about it,” he said. “They’ve done so much for us. We really need to give back.”
Janie Ritchie of North Andover said her years as a Patriot Minuteman — one of the musket-firing New England Patriots fans who salute every scoring drive at Gillette Stadium — has exposed her to several soldiers being honored in pre-game ceremonies.
Many of them are injured, a few even working to cover wounds in the tunnel prior to hitting the field, she said.
“We meet a lot of the guys who come to the game, and every now and then you meet one who has a prosthetic leg on, or an arm,” Ritchie said. “We’re always seeing it up front, and you hear about it on TV, but when you see it, it’s different.”
Ritchie was one of the loudest participants at the race — her musket fire sent the runners off from the starting line just after 9 a.m.
“I didn’t do much. I went to the dinner and shot a gun,” she said. “But it’s nice to do a small thing, because if everybody does a small thing, look at this, it’s a big thing.”
That was also the show of support from the American Warrior Riding Platoon, whose motorcycles escorted runners along the race course from start to finish.
“Everybody who belongs to the group is either military or has family members who are military,” member Dan “Undertaker” Cotnoir said. “When you think about these guys that get injured in war — and we were lucky enough not to be — to do something to help them out is what we’re here for.”
This year’s event supported Army Staff Sgt. Matthew DeWitt, whose home will be built in Concord, N.H., later this year through Homes For Our Troops. DeWitt lost both hands during his first deployment in Khalidiyah, Iraq in 2003.
While DeWitt was away at training over the weekend and unable to attend the race, his fiancee, Catrina Peck, and young son, Reed, were on hand and even ran the race together.
They joined a field of runners that featured many return participants, including the six members of the Sullivan family from Hollis, N.H. They came with their own uniforms — white T-shirts bearing the words “THANK YOU MATT DEWITT” written on the back.
“This is the fourth year,” father Dave Sullivan said. “Homes For Our Troops is an awesome organization. They put so much into the homes. We’ve met the other soldiers who were here as well, and what they’ve sacrificed, we can’t give back enough.”