DUNKIRK – Rarely do courtroom defendants inspire judges to get up at 5 a.m. and walk miles with a 50-pound weight on their back.
Meet Dunkirk City Judge Walter F. Drag, who is training for the KIA Memorial Road March – a 10K ruck march on Aug. 23 over the challenging terrain of Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park.
Drag – who is also a downhill ski enthusiast and runner – is working out every day in anticipation of the KIA (which stands for killed in action) March.
This is new terrain for the 64-year-old judge, who was coaxed to the challenge by a veteran who successfully completed one of Drag’s Veterans Court programs after being charged with driving while intoxicated. The judge also offers special court programs for drug and mental health issues, offering alternatives to jail.
The requirements are strict and include regular counseling, drug testing and mandatory training and employment. The veteran who caught Drag’s ear had completed several tours of Iraq and suffered from PTSD.
The judge has a soft spot for veterans. His late father, Walter F. Drag Sr., spent a career in the military.
Drag’s father was career Army before joining the Army Air Forces during World War II, when he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He died after the war, before his son was born, and the flag that was on his coffin is on display in the judge’s chambers.
“It is my only regret that I did not serve in the military,” Drag said. “I have always had the highest level of respect for those who serve.”
As the Aug. 23 event nears, some take pity on Drag during his regular 5-mile walks with a 50-pound pack.
“They say, ‘That looks heavy. Do you want a ride?’” he said, smiling.
Sunday took Drag to a practice ruck at Chestnut Ridge Park. In an email, Drag said, “I’m already a sweaty mess. God bless the troops that had to do this in 100-plus heat all day.”
During practice, his pack is filled with gallon jugs of water. Aug. 23, it will be packed with nonperishable food that will be donated to local food pantries.
“I think it’s a realization that veterans need our support,” he said.
Army Reserve Sgt. Maj. Jason Jaskula founded the march in memory of Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Dill, his friend and a Buffalo firefighter, who was killed April 4, 2005, while serving in Iraq.
“It grew out of a process,” said Jaskula, who has served in the Army since graduating from high school in 1989. Too many of those killed in action from Western New York were forgotten, he said.
“Last year there were 300 [in New York State since 2001],” he said. “Unfortunately this year there are 307.” All will be recognized during the KIA Memorial Road March.
Jaskula said most people in the march, sponsored by the organization Vets for Vets, will carry 50 pounds of food. In military life, soldiers – depending on their condition – haul packs weighing close to 90 pounds.
“We encourage anyone to attend and register, even if they cannot carry the rucksack filled with food,” Jaskula said.
He said food donations will also be accepted from those participating without the backpacks. There also will be individual and team challenges at Chestnut Ridge Park. Registrations by Wednesday are requested.
For more information visit www.kiamemorialmarch.com.