Wounded Iraq War Hero to Earn Bachelor's Degree from Rutgers-Camden; Will Participate in 4th Annual Jeremy Kane 5K Benefit Run

Wounded Iraq War Hero to Earn Bachelor's Degree from Rutgers-Camden; Will Participate in 4th Annual Jeremy Kane 5K Benefit Run



Sgt. Lester Orellana, an Army veteran of the Iraq War, will
graduate from Rutgers–Camden on May 23 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal
justice.

Lester Orellana

It will be a busy month for Orellana, who will also be among
hundreds who will take to the streets of Cherry Hill on June 9 to pay tribute
to a fallen hero. The Jeremy Kane 5K Benefit Run, beginning at Cherry Hill High
School East at 8:30 a.m., raises money for the Jeremy Kane Scholarship Fund,
which supports student veterans at Rutgers University.

Kane, a Cherry Hill resident, was killed by a suicide bomb
attack while on patrol in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan in January 2010.
The 22-year-old was a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps and was
a criminal justice major at Rutgers–Camden.

“Anytime there is something for any fallen veteran is
something that I feel very strongly about,” says Orellana, a resident of
Willingboro. “Even though I didn’t know Jeremy personally, it’s important to
honor him and my fellow soldiers.”

Orellana has been working hard to participate in the event.
But rest assure, he won’t be caring much about his 5K time, or where he
finishes in the pack. For Orellana, who was wounded by an IED in Iraq, it will
be a victory just to make it to the starting line.

“In today’s world, we use the word ‘hero’ loosely,” says
Fred Davis, campus director for the Office of Veterans Affairs at
Rutgers–Camden. “Lester is a hero, and he’s a role model for all Americans.”

In October 2006, Orellana was on patrol with the U.S. Army’s
101st Airborne, looking for IEDs south of Baghdad. As he scanned the area, he
looked out of his window and saw copper wire. “Before I could say, ‘IEDs,’ it exploded
where I was sitting,” he recalls.

While his memory is still hazy about what happened next,
Orellana remembers bleeding from a gash just above his right eye. He stood up
and felt an excruciating pain. Anger kicked in. “I realized that I was fine, but
my back hurt so bad that I couldn’t move,” he recalls.

Orellana

Fortunately for Orellana, a medic was in his vehicle and
tended to his injuries. After his unit sustained small-arms fire and mortars
for four hours, he was transported back to the base, where they confirmed what
he already knew – he had suffered a traumatic brain injury, in addition to extensive
damage to his shoulder and his lower back.

With only two months left on his tour, Orellana was told
that he could return home. He declined. A few weeks later, three of his
comrades were killed by an IED on the same route on which he had been wounded.
Orellana took the news hard, and begged his commander to allow him to return to
his mission for the final month that he was deployed. “I couldn’t just sit there;
I needed to go out on the mission,” he says. “I was in a lot of pain, but I
sucked it up.”

When Orellana returned to the United States, it was a
different story altogether. Riving in pain, he struggled to complete routine,
everyday tasks. It became a chore just to bend over and tie his shoe. Taking a
shower became an excruciating challenge. Stationed at Ft. Campbell, Texas, he
was then assigned to the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit in Ft. Hood, Texas,
and began a daily regimen of physical therapy and pain management.

On a personal level, Orellana had to deal with lingering
anger issues as well. Forced to retire in 2009, he found it difficult to make
the transition from the military to civilian life. “My life had always
consisted of getting up and doing something,” he recalls. “Suddenly, I was in
so much pain, I couldn’t do anything.”

Gradually, Orellana found the strength to move forward. He
began to attend counseling sessions at a local veterans-administration hospital,
and enrolled at a nearby community college, Central Texas College, to take
advantage of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In 2011, he continued his
education at Rutgers–Camden. “Over time, I started to turn my life around,” he
says.

At Rutgers–Camden, Orellana found much-needed assistance
from the Veterans Affairs office, and comfort and camaraderie from his fellow
veterans. He recalls that Davis was especially helpful, constantly checking up
with him, and speaking to professors on his behalf. “He was always there for
me,” says Orellana.

Orellana became active in the Rutgers–Camden Student
Veterans Association, and was soon a familiar, friendly face in the veterans
lounge. As new veterans arrived on campus, he would routinely speak with them,
and help them to get adjusted to classes and civilian life. He notes that often
they were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I would tell them,
‘It’s difficult, but things will get better,” says Orellana. “‘Keep on pushing
and eventually, you’ll get through school and it’ll all be worth it.’”

Orellana on Campus

Today, Orellana is enrolled in the Philadelphia Police
Academy, and is on track to graduate in October. Much like his experience
serving in the military, he loves knowing that, as a police officer, he will be
helping others. “Anytime you know someone in need, the first person who they
call is a police officer,” he says. “There’s a respect, an honor and a
responsibility that comes with wearing a badge. I can’t see myself doing
anything else; if I can’t serve in the military, I want to be a police
officer.”

More than seven years later, Orellana still feels the lingering
effects of the injuries that he sustained in Iraq. Nonetheless, he is focused
and determined more than ever to get stronger every day. “Physically, it’s very
challenging, because I am still not 100 percent,” says Orellana. “But where
there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Orellana is now looking forward to participating in the Jeremy
Kane 5K Benefit Run as a way to commemorate a fallen hero, as well as to remind
himself of all the progress that he’s made.  While he gathered sponsors for last year’s
run, he was sidelined by a knee surgery. He sees nothing standing in his way
now. “I came from being wounded and not being able to walk, to being able to
run,” he says. “I am physically getting back to my old self.”

Registration for the Jeremy Kane 5K Benefit Run is $15 per
person, or $25 for a family. For more information, please visit
jeremykanebenefitrun.webs.com.

The on-site media contact for the Jeremy Kane Benefit Run is
Fred Davis at (856) 287-6047.

 

Media Contact: Tom McLaughlin
856-225-6545
E-mail: thomas.mclaughlin@camden.rutgers.edu