Army Veteran Kevin Bittenbender cruised over the finish line strapped into his hand-cycle, one of the first finishers in the 9th annual Run for the Troops 5K.
But for Bittenbender, 54, the time wasn’t what mattered. He drove five hours from Pennsylvania to participate in his second Run for the Troops event, an incredible day he said shows thanks and appreciation for the service of so many individuals like himself.
“That’s how much this event means to me,” he said, just minutes after he crossed the finish line.
Last year, Bittenbender was one of the recipients of the hand-cycles provided by Schneider Electric, one of the biggest sponsors of the race, which he now says allows him to get out and about more easily.
After serving 34 years in the U.S. Army and completing three tours, Bittenbender retired at the rank of Sergeant Major.
Bittenbender suffers peripheral neuropathy, a condition that results when nerves that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body are damaged or diseased, as well as bilaterial neuropathy. He underwent a partial foot amputation as a result of the two conditions. Now, Bittenbender also suffers from PTSD and traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
He was one of thousands that came out for Sunday’s race, an annual event that raises money for veterans services. Those services include Homes For Our Troops, Ironstone Farms, Brides Across America and Veterans Northeast Outreach Center.
Veterans, firefighters dressed in their turnout gear, students holding American flags, family and friends were among the thousands of participants who glided across the starting line at the sound of the horn around 8:30 a.m., and over the finish line 5 kilometers later.
Bill Pennington, founder of Run for the Troops, said just under 4,000 people and 125 teams participated in this year’s race. About 40 of those teams had more than 25 members. The first year Pennington coordinated the race, only 200 people participated.
Though it was still early to judge exactly how much money was raised, Pennington said the race brought in more than $75,000, the most in the history of the event.
“We did well, but it’s about more than the money,” he said. “It’s truly priceless. You cannot put a value on what it means to some of these vets.”
Pennington said he founded the race because of his parents. His mother served in the Marines and his father served in the Navy for 30 years. His desire to continue to honor and support veterans is fueled by the knowledge of the sacrifices his family, as well as all other veterans, have made.
“Today is about giving people an opportunity to give thanks to the people who keep us safe,” he said. “I know so many people here who have made sacrifices. ... And it’s not only those who fight, but those who hold down the fort at home, too.”
Alanna Driscoll, 24, from Salem, N.H., ran the race to support the troops and celebrate with her classmates. She was part of Team MSLaw, and is set to graduate from Massachusetts School of Law.
For Driscoll, she not only enjoyed the scenic route through the leafy neighborhoods in Andover, but also enjoyed seeing people run with their dogs.
Alex Vispoli, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, also came out Sunday morning to show support for the troops. He said the selectmen placed American flags along the entire race route Saturday, something they have done since the second year of the race.
“It’s a great event and it shows support for all who have served,” he said. “Andover is proud to host the event.”