pmay@mercurynews.com

SAN JOSE -- The first one over the finish line Saturday morning, marathon runner Shane Brookshire was one big-hearted, sweat-slickened soul.

"That was a little slow for me,'' he said of his 18-minute run through the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens where he'd joined 200 other runners, walkers and stroller-bound infants for the first-ever USO Salutes Our Heroes 5K Walk/Run fundraiser. "But it doesn't matter. I'll do anything I can to support our troops, even if it means running in this heat."

"I have family members in the military,'' said Brookshire, a 26-year-old personal trainer from Stockton. "So this is personal for me.''

It was personal for most of the crowd that braved the heat and paid $35 a head to support the USO Bay Area. Last year alone, the local branch of the nonprofit, nongovernmental group served nearly 62,000 men and women in uniform and their family members, mainly through support centers at the airports in San Francisco, San Jose and Travis Air Force Base.

Saturday's marathon raised about $11,000 in fees and donations, which USO Bay Area director Jeff Herndon said will help bolster the work his six staff members and 210 volunteers do to ease the stress of travel for military members and their families.


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"Our volunteers, like our supporters here today, are just everyday people who want to give back and support the troops,'' said Herndon, taking refuge from the sun beneath the white awning of the USO tent. "Even on Christmas and Thanksgiving, our volunteers are out there in the airports around the country, helping military members get through what can be really tough times.''

Founded in 1941 as a military support group, the USO is best known for the celebrity-studded overseas roadshows led by Bob Hope. And while the group still provides entertainment for soldiers stationed abroad, much of its work is below-the-radar, a mission of mercy quietly carried out right under the noses of modern air traveler racing to and from flights.

"Here in the Bay Area, we take care of these guys as they're traveling through our airports, often flying to and from deployments overseas,'' said USO Bay Area spokesman Bryan Carmody, a television cameraman who volunteers at the San Francisco airport center every Friday evening. "We get 100-plus people a day at SFO. And outside of a few paid administrators, we're all volunteers, including ex-military seniors, guys from the aerospace industry, parents of enlisted folks and others who just want to help out.''

Many of the brave souls running along the Guadalupe Saturday have family members who have benefitted from the USO's work. Runner Jennifer Mercer of Cupertino said she was on hand to support her sister, who works for the USO Bay Area. But once she started thinking about all her military connections, the list seemed endless.

"My dad's an Army vet; my uncle was Navy; my grandfather was Army; my cousin, Navy; another cousin, Army. I think it's important to support anyone who's trying to help our troops,'' she said, as she prepared to join the marathon.

Across the sun-baked greensward, the Castro Valley family of Navy corpsman James Rose was getting ready to run. "Navy sis,'' read the words on the back of Amanda Rose's T-shirt. "Navy mom,'' was on the back of the one worn by Debbie Rose. Bryan, the dad, stood nearby.

"We first learned about all the USO does for our troops the day my son was flying out for the first time on his way to boot camp,'' said Debbie Rose. "We've all seen firsthand how everyone who needs a little love at the airport can get it, because the USO offers our troops a refuge and a safe place in what can be really stressful situations in a really stressful environment.''

Asked whether the gathering heat was giving her pause as she got ready to head for the balloon-festooned starting gate, Debbie Rose was the quintessential gung-ho military mom.

"If my son can go through training in the swamps in North Carolina and all that humidity, we can walk a little while in 100-degree heat,'' she said. "For all he does for us, this is the least we can do for him.''

Contact Pat May at 408-920-5689.