By LORI STABILE
EAST LONGMEADOW - Debra W. Ecker read a letter to her son, Army Sgt. Mark R. Ecker II, at his funeral Saturday.
"Markie, how do I say goodbye to you?" she said.
Ecker, 23, was killed July 10 when he was a passenger in a car that crashed on Interstate 93 in Andover. Just two years ago, Ecker survived a bomb blast in Ramadi, Iraq, that took his lower legs.
How he learned to walk again using prosthetic legs and feet was a story of inspiration and courage, themes that were repeated throughout the funeral by those who knew him.
His effect on his community was evident as more than 500 people turned out to pay their respects at the service at the East Longmeadow High School field, by the track that he ran so many times as a member of the school's cross-country team.
Debra Ecker, with her husband Mark R. Ecker Sr. by her side, talked about her son as a baby, "the most beautiful" she had ever seen. Even as an infant, she said, there was no holding him back.
"At nine months you tried to run before you could even walk," she said.
As a toddler, one of his favorite games was having his father chase him around the kitchen table every night, she remembered. Debra Ecker said before her son left for boot camp he told her he would miss their talks.
"Our closeness never wavered and I'm so grateful for that," Debra Ecker said.
She said she cannot imagine a world without her son.
"My son you are my hero," Debra Ecker said through tears.
As she went to her seat, she was embraced by her daughter Shannon, 21.
Ecker's godmother, Jackie Hebert, read a letter that she wrote when he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he spent months recovering from his injuries. Hebert said while others might wallow in self-pity after losing their legs, "you were thanking God for being alive."
U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, recalled how he visited Ecker at Walter Reed. Neal said he was struck by Ecker's courage and optimism.
Neal said Ecker talked to him about running and how he was determined to do it again. When Neal saw him again, Ecker said to him, "Congressman, I'm back to running, but I'm not quite as fast as I used to be."
Neal said Ecker served America with honor and distinction. Never did he doubt the service he gave to his country, Neal said.
Selectman James D. Driscoll, who coordinated the service, said Ecker embraced his life and his challenges. Monsignor Christopher Connelly, from the Diocese of Springfield, said Ecker's abilities far outshone any hints of disabilities.
Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray said when his daughters ask him what it means to be a patriot, he will tell them Ecker's story. Murray said one question has lingered in everyone's minds - why?
"Why ... after all he went through. Why is he ripped from us through a tragic accident?" Murray said.
Murray said Ecker will continue to inspire others to service and greatness, even in death, and that he will find "a hero's peace as he rejoins his brothers in arms."
Michael Gadziala, funeral director of Forastiere-Smith Funeral Home, said East Longmeadow has gone from a community to a family, because of Ecker.
Gadziala also noted Ecker's love of music, which led to a series of songs performed in memory of Ecker.
Merrill R. Shepard said Ecker was a "huge Guns n' Roses fan" before she sang "November Rain."
David Avezzie spoke about his longtime friend. Avezzie said they ran track together at the high school, where Ecker graduated in 2003. Avezzie said he especially will miss the way Ecker hugged.
"You'd say, 'When is he going to let go?' " Avezzie said. "He hugged with his whole heart."
"I'll see you sometime man ... I'll have all the time in the world then. And I don't care how long it takes for him to let go," Avezzie said, breaking down.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew E. Keil served with Ecker. He brought a message from their platoon leader, Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Farnsworth, who said Ecker was one of his favorite soldiers. Keil, of Colorado, said Ecker was a natural leader.
"He was one of those guys you liked instantly," Keil said.
Keil, who is in a wheelchair, was injured the same day as Ecker. Keil said he was on the opposite side of the street when the explosion hit Ecker and was first on scene. Keil said Ecker was more concerned about his fellow soldiers than he was that his legs were gone.
They were in recovery together at Walter Reed, which cemented their friendship.
"He always wore his dog tags on the outside of his shirt because he was so proud of his military career," Keil said.
"Saying goodbye to Mark is the toughest thing I've ever done in my life. Sgt. Ecker, I will see you on the battlefield," Keil said.
Ecker's flag-covered casket was led from the field, through a line of American flags, and under an American flag suspended between two fire truck ladders.
Ecker will be buried Monday at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam. The public procession will begin at 10 a.m. at the Forastiere-Smith Funeral Home on North Main Street; overflow parking is at the high school and St. Michael's Church and people are asked to remain in their vehicles, Driscoll said. A reception will follow at Onyx restaurant in Springfield.