Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth was walking with his convoy in Iraq when he noticed a nearby improvised explosive device. He alerted his convoy to scatter away, and jumped on the IED, saving his fellow soldiers, but costing him his life.
Although Ellsworth died in 2004, the Marine’s sacrifice lives on through the Mount Pleasant VFW Post 3033′s annual dart tournament. The Justin Ellsworth Memorial Dart Tournament entered its second year Saturday with remembrance and celebration.
“We’re not here to cry, we’re not here to mourn,” said John Ellsworth, Justin’s father. “We’re here to celebrate his memory with family and friends because that’s what Justin would’ve wanted.”
John said he drove four hours in snowy weather to make it to the tournament on Saturday. He said he was touched to see people gathering at the event in memory of his son.
“If Justin’s watching, he would be a little embarrassed,” John said. “But he would be humbled that people came together to remember him.”
As the competition got heated, victorious screams of “Bull’s-eye!” could be heard by members of the military and local Mount Pleasant residents as they gathered for a night of darts and cold beer.
Patrons could bid on two raffles, the first made up of a variety of sports memorabilia, including vintage Pistons jerseys and autographed Red Wings posters. The other raffle contained items donated by Mount Pleasant businesses, including a concert and hotel package from Soaring Eagle, and two movie tickets to Celebration! Cinema.
Merchandise in memory ofJustin Ellsworth, such as t-shirts, wristbands and dog tags, were also for sale.
Heather Neff has organized many different memorial events for Justin Ellsworth, and enjoys the festive atmosphere that people create at each event.
“We made $2,400 at last year’s dart tournament with around 130 people here at once, but we hope to top that this year,” Neff said. “We give the proceeds to the Military Families United of Michigan, which aids military families in a number of ways from setting up scholarships to paying for counseling services.”
Though the annual dart tournament is one of her favorites, Neff has organized Halloween parties, shore-to-shore runs and an upcoming golf tournament to be held in March. Neff stresses that the events are set up as more of a celebration in memory of Justin Ellsworth, rather than an emotion-filled memorial.
Ex-marine Randy Wyrick participated in last year’s competition.
“It’s good fun hanging out with everyone, and of course the challenge and camaraderie is exciting, too,” Wyrick said. “It’s great that the money raised goes to the marines, because they deserve to get every dollar they can.”
Wyrick was one of more than 45 participants to compete in the dart tournament. Each individual paid $7, and teams competed in pairs.
One of Justin Ellsworth’s longtime friends, Marc Brandeberry, fondly remembered his time with him. Brandeberry reminisced about living with him as a child.
“When we were younger, his parents let us live together in a trailer, and we had so much fun hanging out together,” Brandeberry said. “Justin was an open-hearted guy. If you needed help, he was always there.”