J. Arlen Ecker
West Point, 1989
Be Thou At Peace
Posted by Doug DeLancey on May 12, 2010:
Eulogy for James Arlen Ecker (1963 - 2010) delivered by Lieutenant Colonel Douglas J. DeLancey on 28 Jan 2010 at Plano Bible Chapel, Plano TX
Just an many of us here cannot tell our story without telling a part of Arlen's, we cannot tell his story without a bit of humor, so please understand everything I say is meant with the deepest respect for him and everyone here. We'll talk about some light moments, and the sadness we all share, too.
You know, Arlen never seemed to be on time very often....I can remember waiting for him here or there, in fact one time waiting at an airport for him for a couple hours once, until I finally called him and learned he thought our flight was the next day...so it is good to see all of you on time today, and Arlen here on time today, as well.
For many of us here, our lives changed forever on 1 July 1985, when we met New Cadet James Arlen Ecker on our first day at West Point. And for all of us here, our lives changed forever on 20 January, 2010, when Arlen died. Today, we are reminded that life only hurts us so much, because it is so beautiful, and that the passing of a loved one crushes us because of what a great person they were and the emptiness we feel when they die.
Who was Arlen Ecker?
We know that he was born on August 28, 1963 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to John Leonard Ecker and Irene Drouse Ecker. He was raised in Wilbraham, Mass, and as with many great people, he possessed numerous and fantastic qualities, a few of which I'd like to share with you today.
Rather than talk about Arlen's life in chronological order, since so many aspects of Arlen's life overlap, I'd like to talk about his roles in life. His role as a child, a musician, an American, a scholar, a Soldier, a businessman, an athlete, a son and brother, a poet, a man with a tremendous sense of humor, a friend, a believer, and finally and most importantly, a father, a husband, and a legacy. So please bear with me if it seems like I'm skipping around a bit.
He was a great and loved kid. Arlen spoke often and fondly of his childhood. He had some tough breaks, losing a close friend to a car wreck, his father passed away in High School, and he overcame what might have been setbacks to many, to become a great man. I think this says a lot about him. His stories about childhood were always filled with pranks or talking about his friends, and the games they played. I'm sure those were far simpler times and that they seemed happy and carefree.
He was a musician, and he loved music. A high school friend wrote on Arlen's obituary page:
"My brother and I spent many enjoyable and memorable hours throughout our High School years jamming with Arlen, of 'The Aces' in Wilbraham. His energy and confidence were outstanding traits that he depicted. The High School talent show, the Town Fair, Lake Mark, and Mountain Park with Arlen leading the band on guitar are lasting memories we enjoy."
On the morning of our graduation from West Point, we executed a careful plan that we had talked about for months. It was the end of a long journey for us and many of you here today to honor him. And, although it seems we can't remember where we set our car keys down twenty minutes ago, some memories are engraved into who we are, and parts of them remain even after our bodies are broken. I'll remember him as he was on that morning -- strong, confident, proud. He put Bob Seger's tape into the stereo, and played, "Like a Rock" (long before it became a Chevy commercial) as we put on our cadet uniforms for the last time. The lyrics said, "...my hands were steady, my eyes were clear and bright, my walk had purpose, my steps were quick and light..." Arlen looked and pointed at me, and did his exaggerated wink, contorting his entire face. We went out to face the Army, the Gulf War, whatever you could throw our way. And like the song, he "...stood proud, (he) stood tall, high above it all." Just this last May, 20 years ago to the day, we spoke...we talked about that song, that moment. From that song: "Twenty years now, where'd they go? I sit and I wonder sometimes, where they've gone." Like many of you recall, Arlen would occasionally tell you something with that smirk of his, and you would think for a minute and realize he pulled an obscure song lyric and weaved it perfectly into the conversation to see if you noticed. I had known for 20 years that we would talk on that day and that he would say, "Hey Sir, you be in for twenty!!!"
We shared an apartment at Fort Benning for a while, and he had this idea of throwing a party in the common area, the garden...and we were talking about his idea....he was going to play the guitar and sing with a couple of other friends. Since this was going to take place in the garden, I said, "So this is a going to be a garden party?" In typical Arlen fashion and without missing a beat, he said, "we're not going to play any Ricky Nelson." He loved music.
He was an American, a rugged individual without any sense of entitlement. As an Officer in the Army, he swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. I don't think he took that lightly, and he may not have been the type of Veteran who puts on his uniform every Fourth of July for a parade, but I know he was very deservingly proud of his service. He was an American and a patriot. He was also the type of critic that only a true patriot can be. He could poke fun sacred institutions, and yet you knew he loved them and would defend them to the death.
He was a scholar. After graduation from High School in 1981, he attended The New Hampton School for a year until 1982, and then the University of Massachusetts for a year, until he decided he wanted be a paratrooper for a while. Sadly, his father had died when Arlen was in High School, and he struggled for a while, and somehow overcame and earned grades high enough that helped, along with the great potential he displayed as a Soldier, and gained acceptance to the United States Military Academy Preparatory School, on and on to West Point after earning a Congressional nomination from the Honorable Edward Patrick Boland. Arlen excelled in academics at West Point and even majored in physics, but none of us seem to recall seeing him study. Amazing. He also earned his MBA from the University of Texas in 2000. More importantly than titles or diplomas, he was a student of life, and could read a person like a book cover. And more than just a scholarly mind, he could connect strings of thoughts and concepts together, like he always knew the answer to the question you haven't even thought of yet.
He was a soldier. He enlisted in the Army in Feb 1984, and served in the famed 82d Airborne Division before being accepted into the Academy Prep School. I recall that he kept his ragged maroon beret in his footlocker, and when he told stories about being a paratrooper, I decided that I wanted to be one, too. His squad leader, when he was a New Cadet at West Point, Jim DiOrio, said, "I have so many fond memories of Arlen and my Beast Squad. He could never stop smiling, which in turn helped us all to smile. May he rest in peace." He was an Army Ranger. I remember each time our paths crossed in Ranger School, I left with my spirits lifted. He knew just the right thing to say at any given moment, a gift that only those who truly care about others possess. I visited him at Fort Hood before we left for Operation Desert Storm, and saw him with his platoon. If you recall the opening scene of the movie Gladiator, the general is walking among his Soldiers, and you can feel the respect and admiration they have for him. It was that way with Arlen...as he walked around, his Soldiers looked at him with the deepest respect...not because he was a 2nd Lieutenant or their platoon leader, but because he was someone they wanted to follow. As a Soldier, in Desert Storm, he saw some pretty horrible scenes, and I know they disturbed him. "Things cannot be unseen," he commented to me once, and he dealt with these images as best he could, like so many other Veterans.
He was a great business man who moved up quickly from the Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Texas Spectrum Electronics, Inc. to the President of the company, a position he held for several years. He was also the Sales Director for the entire Southwest US for a major electrical / electronic manufacturing firm. He was also a Private Client Services Associate for Banc of America Securities, providing financial services for high net worth individuals and families. He earned a reputation for honest dealing and hard work. I have no doubt that Arlen could sell bricks to a drowning man. Fortunately for Wall Street and the global economy, he was a man of character. Yes, he was a character.
He was an athlete. He ran on the West Point marathon team, and played lacrosse, once making a "no-look pass" that led to a critical goal that is still talked about today. He played and loved hockey, and he could cite high school stats of Texas Longhorn football players. Our nightly discussion as roommates often ended with him asking if I wanted to run with him the following morning, and I would always reply, "Sure, just wake me up." He never did, since he knew I wouldn't go. Another example of Arlen as an athlete is in Ranger School, where he seemed relaxed, almost comfortable. You knew he would make it through.
He was a son and brother. He cared for his mom as her health failed, and anguished at her death. He was a good son. My parents loved him, like a son, and for twenty years a picture of him remained stationary of the refrigerator, until they both passed away. I was in the picture, too, but I would often joke they kept a picture of Arlen displayed, and I only happened to be in it. He was a brother to his family, but also a big brother to many of us. Several of his classmates describe him lovingly as a big brother. He would always help you in any way that he could. He was strong, but that strength never kept him from lifting up someone around him, whether it was a close friend or a total stranger. One classmate wrote the following: "Arlen was my hero. When I was so scared and confused back in 1985, Arlen was the guy I wanted to be like. He had something nobody else had - a certain composure, and a coolness under pressure." He would intentionally draw the attention and furry of the upperclassmen during our first summer and plebe year, to keep that attention away from us. One classmate commented that he was the first to understand what the phrase, "cooperate and graduate," really meant, and that he would always be indebted to him for that.
A classmate, Karen Dunn, commented, "I wish I could thank him, too...funny how we never really did that. Arlen was like a big brother to me in that he would come in during Beast and show me how to shine my shoes properly. I looked up to him...in my heart. He really seemed to care about those around him. His presence in our company, especially Plebe year, gave me more confidence and resolve. I felt like I was such a mess then; and he had it all together."
He was a very funny person who loved to laugh. Mike McGowan estimates they probably laughed together over ten thousand times, and during the last conversation they shared, Arlen laughed as long and hard as we all remember. Mike also remembers one day they were traveling after our Plebe year, and finally made it to the on-post lodging at Fort Ord, California. They were tired, and Arlen kicked back and said, the only thing that could make this better was if we had beer, and Mike went over to the mini-fridge and it had a six-pack in it. The screamed like they had won the lottery.....perhaps not realizing that all the mini fridges were stocked with beer. His good friend Mike chooses to remember him from that day, in his words, "...so young and happy, it was if God was smiling down upon him."
I recall traveling with Arlen after graduation, flying in military transport aircraft when they had space available. We ended up in the South Pacific on Wake Island, a remote remnant of WWII. We rented some snorkeling gear, and Arlen walked up from the beach to small bridge that connected the island with a much smaller one and looked down into the water. We asked him how it looked in the water and he nodded, "...looks good, some seaweed floating around but looks great, you guys go ahead." It wasn't seaweed....it was hundreds of the largest, nastiest eels you can imagine. Thanks, buddy.
I also recall a stay at Guam Island where we saw an Air Force general get out of car marked with a special plate that had three stars on it, only to wake up the next morning and find it in my luggage. It is never your enemies, you need to worry about...it is always your friends. I am pretty sure we made sure it was properly returned? On that same trip, we found ourselves living in an airport terminal for a couple days, and decided to take a cab to a nearby store and bought air mattresses to sleep on -- the kind you might use in a pool. After some 30 minutes of blowing them up, the guy in charge came over and told us that we couldn't use air mattresses on the floor. Without missing a beat, Arlen asked, "What if we let the air out of them?"
He was a poet ...no, I don't think he sat around writing verse and sonnets, but he saw life through the eyes of an artist. He picked out the small things, and saw beyond the veneer that many of us cannot. He loved life, and though we will never understand his death, perhaps he was blinded by the wonder and mystery of the things you and I cannot see. He always reminded me of the Fox and the Hedgehog essay that a philosopher wrote...the idea that a fox may know many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. It always seemed like we were scrambling around to learn little things in life, and he had it all figured out....like he knew what the big thing was. Ironically, in the last voice mail he left for me, he said he had two things he want to tell me...one big thing, and one little thing. I will always be haunted by the fact that I waited too long to call him back.
I finally did go for a run with him on that trip to Wake Island, along the destroyed gun emplacements and the rocks, and rusted debris that is still there. On that island, American Servicemen had waited for the overwhelming attack by the Japanese that resulted in the capture and slaughter of many early in the war. That place seemed to move him, like a poet or writer who can feel the suffering that lingers in places like that. And still that was a happy day, later...a beachside bar where all the residents of the island stayed and drank and sang until 5 am. We talked about that run, and the future as the sun came up.
He was a friend. Can you imagine his cell phone bill? Did he call you in the middle of the night? He could have starred in an advertisement for unlimited minutes! I have never known a person so universally admired by those that knew him, as Arlen. There is a story about Ronald Reagan inviting a group of biographers over to the White House for dinner to pick the one who would write the President's official biography. One of them didn't like Ronald Reagan, but by the time the dinner was over, the man admired him deeply. This was the stuff of Arlen Ecker. He drew you in, and made you feel like you were a better person, than you really are.
I once watched him strike up a long conversation in a small village in the Philippines with a small group of locals. They talked for maybe 15 minutes, and when he came back over, I asked if they spoke English, and he pause for a moment and said, "No." So I said, "Well, I guess you speak the local language, then?" He tilted his head back, and said convincingly, "Yes, I do, in fact." He was a good friend to many, and in a quotation from our last conversation, he said, "If I'm somebody's friend, I got their back!" And it was always true.
Jack Frey talks about a semester he spent rooming with Arlen when Jack had a couple surgeries. Jack was healing and trying to study, and Arlen would hobble around the room on Jack's crutches, and they would both end up singing along with a Lynard Skynard song on the stereo. I can't imagine how horrible that must have sounded....I don't even want to picture it. Yes, Arlen was a friend, and he was a stand-up guy.
He was a believer. What follows is in Arlen's own words, with a few edited out:
"Brainerd, Minnesota - August 1994. I am not much of a golfer. At a sales meeting at mosquito-ridden Madden's West golf course, 4th hole, we were already 3 sheets to the wind. I was borrowing clubs, had just done something off to the side of the tee box worthy of getting me thrown off the course - even Madden's course. I stepped up to the tee and said, 'Hey fellas, what do ya say I just knock this one in?' 142 yards and several seconds later? I got me my very own hole-in-one. We dog piled...and I ran around screaming, 'I hit a home run!' I got religion that day. When something like that happens to you, you are absolutely certain there is a God."
I don't recall we talked about God much together, but when I look at how he treated those around him, they way he loved fatherhood, and how he made others feel about themselves, I know there was a close spiritual connection between Arlen and the Almighty. Somehow, on the very morning of his death, before many of us even knew...on the way to work, the radio played, "Only the Good Die Young." On a country station! How does that happen? Lord, watch over our brother.
He was a father. Ryan, Baby Jack....he loved you, and every time we talked, he talked about you and how proud he was of you. Your dad's friends that I've spoken with have all told me the same thing. When you get older, we'll tell you more about your dad, but for now, know that he loves you very much. Know that he earned the respect of those around him, that he was a warrior, and he was tough; he did his best in everything he did and that he chose to be a Soldier and protect Americans and the American way of life. Don't feel you need to follow in his footsteps in life, but be proud of him and what he stood for.
He was a husband. Paula, we cannot understand the depth of your pain; certainly no words can ease that, but we know that you will get through this difficult time and that there is light past the darkness. And although the next few hours and days will be difficult, there are many people around the world who share your loss, but even more, we have confidence that you will continue to be an absolutely wonderful mother. Arlen loved you, and he seemed happiest at your side. Paula, we know this day carries deep sadness and unanswered questions; and in the days ahead, the warmth of the sun may not feel quite the same. But remember the tears and affection so many of us showed today, and know we are with you and Ryan and Jack.
And now he is a memory, and a legacy. We want to understand his death, but we cannot. It is the way of things. How someone so full of life, with so many friends is now gone, is simply beyond our ability to comprehend. Arlen helped each of us through dark times, and I'm sure many of you wish we could have done more to help him during his most difficult times. We can only look to the future now, and know that sometimes those that are the most giving, accept and expect so little from others that they carry the burden of many.
Perhaps, we are left with the question, what defined him? We've talked his characteristics, and know who he was, but we are left with such sadness and feel so lost. We may feel that we are all closer to the end than the beginning and that somehow our better days have already past. What would he tell us? We cannot understand all this, but we must each look into the darkness of Arlen's death and the last few days and choose what path to take. Maybe we each ask ourselves how we can we best honor his memory? Can we grow from this? How can we finish well?
You also have to ask yourself....what does a guy like Arlen do up in heaven? I'm sure he reunited with his parents and loved ones. I wouldn't doubt he has found a Soldier that just arrived from the war, and showed them around a bit, like he's been there for years. I hope he hasn't tried to claim he is in charge of the operation up there. I wouldn't doubt he's looked a few people up. Maybe Elvis, or maybe he's gone up to James Dean and said, "Hey....your James Dean, and the reply, was....'yeah...dude, aren't you Arlen Ecker?'" He's found another of our classmates from West Point, Tim Brooks who died in 2004; and I'm sure Tim brought over a binder containing the rules and regulations of heaven. Arlen has probably already bent a few of those rules already. He is probably even eavesdropping on us here today, which probably isn't supposed to happen. I am reminded of how Arlen was at Tim's funeral. He helped us celebrate and recall the fond memories -- to respect the pain, but try not to dwell on it. Perhaps Arlen would want us to do the same for him.
In mourning, we can tell ourselves that we don't deserve the pain of Arlen's death, but then again, did many of us here truly deserve to know such a good man? In 46 years, he changed the course of many lives, yours and mine and thousands we don't know. He led Soldiers in combat to free the people of Kuwait from a violent, unprovoked invasion, started a wonderful family that will thrive, and earned a network or friends that would, indeed, gather to help him, honor him, fight alongside him anytime, anyplace. He was the kind of guy you would want to have with you in a tight spot. Arlen, on behalf of so many of us who have known you, thank you. Well done.
On the dusty of bookshelves of many of you here, and in the archives of libraries around the world, and among the artifacts of days gone by at West Point is a thick, blue book. It is the called the Howitzer, and it's a yearbook, of sorts. It is the place you look when a classmate falls, and you feel punched in the gut and saddened like a child and you don't know what else to do. On page 415 of the blue, 1989 edition is a picture of one, James Arlen Ecker. It is the smile we all remember. There is a small paragraph there that ends with this simple and true statement, "He helped us through it all, we love him."
Be thou at peace.