Many of the residents of Western Massachusetts knew Mark Ecker Jr. as a local hero. He was on the news many times, in several parades, and even pitched for the Baltimore Orioles. We all knew him as an inspiring individual, with strength like no other. After losing his legs in Iraq to an IED, and almost losing his life as well, he did not give up, and resiliently fought his way back up to a normal life. Most of you saw the best of him, with his charming smile on TV, and his valiant words of never giving up. I saw everything.
Mark Ecker Jr. married my sister five years ago. Even before their marriage we had become close friends, and after the wedding, I considered Mark a brother. After the tragedy in Iraq, I flew to Washington, D.C. to visit Mark at Walter Reed, once he had recovered enough to walk around with his prosthetics. Though I can assure everyone that his strength and diligence was inspiring, there was also a very soft side to Mark, one that he would only expose to those he trusted. Like any human being, he had hopes and dreams of his own, worries and doubts. He knew he could make it through the accident, but even this titan of determination had his downs. I did my best to be his support. The experience at Walter Reed is one I will never forget. It was truly exhilarating, and it is the pulling factor to why I decided to become a psychologist.
I had never heard of someone not liking Mark, besides the anti-war activists. I know he had troubles with that group. He often told me of bar brawls that started because of anti-war radicals become rough with him. It didn't seem to phase him much. He just beat the crap out of them and went on his way, as if it were a usual occurrence. But as a whole, Mark was a well liked guy. He had a family that loved him, a lot of friends that admired him, and a herd of girls that were dying to date a hero.
Though I cannot spare many details, I will admit that Mark shared with me a lot of private thoughts and feelings. Mark suffered severely from PTSD after the accident in Iraq, and he confided in me his symptoms and worries. As a student majoring in psychology, I did my best to offer any educated advice I had, and frequently encouraged him to seek therapy. Mark also dealt with issues of self esteem. I think he sometimes did not feel like a whole man without his legs. If he were here now, I would tell him, "Mark, you are the closest to a whole man I have ever met, and I have met quite a few tall guys." I encouraged him with compliments and affection. I had adopted the nickname of "Puppy" for him, because he liked getting his head and ears scratched and rubbed. It seemed to cheer him up when I called him that, and I loved to see him smile.
Mark was just one of the guys that lived in Massachusetts. Just an ordinary high school graduate that entered the armed forces. Even after the accident, that's still what he was. Just a man. But that is exactly what makes him such a great hero, because people need a hero that they can relate to, that is close to them, that is tangible. Mark had his bad times, Mark had his worries. Mark had his problems. He was such an inspiration because not only did he have great qualities and unwavering ambition, but he was real. He was as real as you and I. And better yet, he lived amongst us.
Mark was involved in a terrible car accident on the highway and was announced dead on the evening of July 10. I found out by sheer chance, as I had been working the day of the accident and the day after. On the morning of July 11, while glancing at the newspaper at work, I saw his picture. I thought it was the usual article about how well he was doing or maybe about the house being built for him, so I read the caption beneath the photo.
There is a funny thing about finding out tragic news. First, you feel isolated from the world. Then, you are completely unaware of what's going on around you. Next, you feel your heart racing or slowing down to nearly nothing. Then you're numb for a moment, while the news is sinking in. The initial shock is complete, and you collapse into tears. I left work early, and phoned my fiance as soon as I arrived home, telling him I needed him to come over quickly. It was hard to share the news, choking on tears and still shaking from surprise. It was harder to tell my mother, because I knew how she would react. It's difficult to watch others cry.
Mark and I had had plans to get together in a few days. It still feels strange knowing that those plans are canceled. Though I watched the news about Mark's death, it still feels so fake, so foreign. Several times I had to stop myself from texting Mark's cell phone. Why do I still expect him to answer? A better question is, how does a man, who has survived an IED, with shrapnel in his blood stream and two legs blown off, lose his life to a car wreck? My only answer so far is this: Even a fighter can only fight until the willingness to do so is gone. Mark let go, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't of done it without good reason. Some answers even the strongest of us cannot handle.
The Saturday newspaper reads: Wreck Claims Hero. The HCC student writes: Massachusetts mourns the loss of a hero among us.