|By Danielle Paine|
Reminder Associate Editor
EAST LONGMEADOW The war in Iraq has hit home for those in town and beyond who have heard the story of East Longmeadow's Army Sgt. Mark R. Ecker II.
Now undergoing numerous surgeries and a long recovery at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., Ecker lost both of his feet on Feb. 23 after he stepped on an explosive in Ramadi, Iraq.
In an unprecedented show of support, Ecker's hometown has reached out to this wounded soldier through cards, letters, donations and calls. Those who know him best have gone one step further.
Ecker received a very special delivery to his room at Walter Reed Hospital last week, four of his best friends. David Abezzie, James Gastone, Brian Morrisette and Andrew Clark drove down to the hospital together on Friday to spend the weekend with Ecker.
Once there, the group stayed with fellow 2003 East Longmeadow High School graduates Brian Rideout and Ethan Gormbley, students at nearby George Washington University. Together, they made the trip to Ecker's bedside.
"I knew what he was doing was dangerous but we're all 21, I figured we were all bulletproof," Abezzie said. "It's different now."
In their two days with Ecker, the group caught up on each other's news, told dirty jokes and hung out. Ecker's good spirits made them feel as though it were just like any other day catching up with him.
"There was an obvious sense of apprehension because none of us had been in a position like this and we didn't know what to expect," Rideout explained. "But it's still just our friend of high school, nothing has changed."
Ecker has heard of the many donations and benefits being given to help him and friends say he is both overwhelmed and appreciative.
"East Longmeadow is a great town and they take care of their own," Abezzi said. "I'm glad to see that they're still doing it and Mark deserves it."
Rideout said that Ecker is handling the situation very well because, "he has a lot of heart." Mainly, he is just happy to be alive while so many others are not.
"It defiantly brings a sense of realism and that there are physical consequences of being in war, it's not just on the news," Rideout said. "It puts a different perspective on it and immediately thought of all of our friend's parents having to deal with this to a much greater degree during Vietnam."
Abezzi, a local emergency medical techniction and firefighter, was the first of these friends to learn of Ecker's wounds.
"I was shocked," he said. "I got a call from Mrs. Ecker at 8:30 in the morning and I knew something had happened. I couldn't imagine first of all what he was going through and how it would change his life."
Part of him, Abezzi said, knew not to worry too much as he'd always though of Mark as a "tough kid who could handle what ever is thrown at him."
"Mark was telling us, 'Dave, I was standing right over this thing, there is no reason I should be alive right now,'" Abezzi said.
With his friends, Ecker is beginning to plan his future and explore his career options in what will be a life with prosthetic feet. Abezzi describes Ecker as "not the type of kid who can just sit around and do nothing."
"Mark has always taken on the hero persona," Abezzi said. "He's always worked to be the guy that everyone counts on, who does the right thing. He's been a great soldier, and the Army is really going to miss him."
As an example, Abezzi explained that Ecker had gotten a job offer not too long ago, to train civilians in Baghdad rather than fight himself. He turned it down, Abezzi said, because he didn't want to leave his men.
Many are looking to Ecker as the town's very own hero. This title was even the theme for East Longmeadow High School's day of fund-raising for the Ecker family in which staff and students netted $600 for the family's expenses.
Teachers Mark Townsend, Jan Clini and coach Joe Calabrese coordinated the fund-raiser. The senior class of the school and the faculty are also planning future events.
"They're going to need help beyond the immediate," Principal Richard Freccero said. "When I talked to Mark he said it would take him a good six to nine months to recuperate."
East Longmeadow Rotary Club members Jim Rintoul and Paul Herlika responded to the news about Ecker by establishing a fund for the soldier at Berkshire Bank. After media coverage made the public aware of the fund, the pair have been bogged down with donations daily.
"There is a lot of good people in East Longmeadow and the surrounding area that I thought would be willing to help Mark and his family," Rintoul said. "So far that has proven to be correct."
Last Monday, the fund received 39 donations ranging from $20 to sums of several hundred. On Tuesday 50 more came in. Herlika said there is already several thousand dollars in the account, adding, "and we're just really getting started."
To donate to the Ecker family, funds may be dropped off or mailed into the Mark Ecker II Benefit fund at Berkshire Bank, 72 Shaker Rd., E. Longmeadow.
Board of Selectman Chair James Driscoll and Romito & Sons owner John Romito are planning a large benefit for the Ecker family to be held on March 25, 4 - 8 p.m. at Romito's, 26 North Main St., East Longmeadow.
"We all read about the casualties all the time but to have one of our homegrown so tragically wounded is so sad," Driscoll said. "To see the town react like they have been, pouring out support, has been so inspiring."
Food, a cash bar and an auction are being held at what Driscoll called a family oriented fund-raiser. All proceeds will go to the Ecker family. The suggested donation to attend is $50 per family. Anyone interested in donating to auction or becoming a corporate sponsor may contact Driscoll at 525-2031. Tickets are available at Romito's and Berkshire Bank.