Jeremy Hirata looks forward to the annual 200-mile drive between his home in suburban Detroit and Columbus for the Shootout for Soldiers lacrosse marathon, and he's happy others increasingly are seeing that as a worthwhile trip.
"It's not always easy to bring veterans together, and a lot of people see lacrosse as an expensive sport," Hirata, a resident of Oakland, Michigan, said of the 24-hour event that returns to central Ohio for the third consecutive year Saturday, July 15, and Sunday, July 16, at Fortress Obetz. "But you merge them together and get people together for a great cause, that's a great thing.
"No one gets paid. The charities that benefit, people are doing this for veterans and the money goes straight to them. I enjoy it, and the guys I'm coming down with enjoy it."
Hirata, 30, is a nine-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who took up lacrosse in 2003 as a high school senior in Orlando, Florida, and has coached high school and club teams in California and Michigan. He will play with two all-male teams in Shootout for Soldiers, which begins with a veterans-only game at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 15, and lasts until 1 p.m. the next day.
Forty-three amateur teams consisting of approximately 950 players will participate in 28 games, with the centerpiece being the Major League Lacrosse contest between the Ohio Machine and Denver Outlaws at 7 p.m.
Proceeds benefit military-oriented charities, including Buckeye Military Moms and Honor Flight Columbus on a local level.
Shootout for Soldiers was played at Thomas Worthington High School each of the past two years, but event organizer Merry Troper said it was a no-brainer to move the event to the new facility in Obetz once the Machine got involved last August. The Machine played its first game there May 6 after playing home games its first five seasons at Ohio Wesleyan (2012-15) and Ohio Dominican (2016).
Fortress Obetz, which features a turf field on which the Machine plays as well as three natural grass fields, is on the site of the former Columbus Motor Speedway.
"That was probably one of the easiest decisions we've ever made," Troper said, citing not only the facility but also the growth of lacrosse in Ohio and the Midwest. "We'll never have to move again."
Shootout for Soldiers, which was founded in 2012 by a group of Baltimore, Maryland, high school seniors, has raised well more than $1 million and expanded from five cities in 2015 to 12 this year.
As of July 6, $30,832.44 had been raised toward the Columbus event's $50,000 goal. Troper said that figure did not include donations from companies such as American Electric Power and Ricart Ford that will be announced during the games.
Makeup of teams varies. According to Troper, one game will consist entirely of goalkeepers playing with their goalie sticks. Players can participate in multiple games, and all teams are divided into the Stars and Stripes divisions. While Shootout for Soldiers is not a tournament, an aggregate score is kept and the winning division is announced during the closing ceremony.
"Lacrosse itself is growing, which helps, but one thing people seem to love about this is it comes with no pressure," Troper said.
Joe Machado, a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the board of Honor Flight Columbus and is the organization's speaker coordinator, called the relationship with Shootout for Soldiers "a natural fit."
According to Machado, Honor Flight Columbus will fly its 5,000th veteran to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9.
"There's not an event exactly like this that I know of. When Merry called us, we were interested immediately," said Machado, 78, a 23-year Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 and now lives in Liberty Township in Fairfield County. "It costs us $62,000 for one chartered flight to Washington (D.C.), including everything the veterans need while they're there. We live on donations."
Shootout for Soldiers has become a labor of love for Troper, whose son, Sam, played lacrosse at Thomas.
"I probably talk about Shootout for Soldiers at some point every day," Troper said. "When you see the players out there at 2 and 3 a.m. and the volunteers still going strong, that's very rewarding."