Lt. Col. Mark Weber is in a race against time. Since being diagnosed with Stage IV intestinal cancer in mid-2010 at age 38, he has focused on his role as husband and father to wife Kristin and sons Matthew, 17, and twins Joshua and Noah, 12. This included writing the book, “Tell My Sons …” within a six-week span last fall. The book is based on more than 20 years of his journals and current reflections.
Weber’s career in the U.S. Army included serving as a military assistant to Iraq’s Gen. Babakir Zebari in 2005 at the appointment of then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. Just before receiving his cancer diagnosis, Weber had once again been tapped by Petraeus to serve as the military assistant to incoming Afghan Minister of the Interior Bismillah Mohammadi, a position he was ultimately unable to accept. In early March, Weber went back to Iraq to see Zebari and his family.
Weber is quick to point out that “Tell My Sons …” is not a soldier’s story, but lessons he wanted to share with his sons. The book features very real and sometimes brutally honest examples from the Rosemount father’s life, including the bullying he endured in high school, his early years in the army, marital struggles due to the strains of military life, and professional and personal challenges that included exhaustive cancer treatments — surgery, chemotherapy — and the extreme toll they took.
Weber, now 41, talked recently about his life lessons, his goals for his sons and mixed feelings about being seen as an inspiration.
On the honesty in the book: “There are very few moments in my life that have struck me as profoundly as when I realized my parents were not perfect. I wanted my kids to see I’m not perfect. I want them to see that in my life, I’ve learned there is virtue in failure. Hard things are not something to be ashamed of. They are part of the deal.”
On telling their sons about the cancer diagnosis: “Because of my job, we knew too many people would find out quickly and we didn’t want the kids to hear it from someone else. Matthew was at camp, and it was Kristin’s idea for us to immediately shut down his Facebook page and ours. Information can float around on Facebook like a stray bullet. When we told them, it was important for me to tell them what they needed to know and what we were going to do about it. We said they would see people crying and angry, but that I’m still here. I’m still me.”
On being a source of inspiration to others in his fight against cancer: “I have mixed feelings. At the beginning, it infuriated me when people told me they were inspired by my story. ‘To do what?’ I used to ask them. What I heard in their tone is that they didn’t think they could ever go through this experience, but that’s not healthy thinking. People are capable of far more than they realize.
“Every time I speak to a group, there are a good number of audience members who come up to me, usually through tears, and tell me someone they loved passed away from cancer. They say, ‘I could hear them in your voice.’ They are reaching out to make a connection, and I always want to affirm that.”
On whether he thinks his sons will consider military life: “I think they might think about it. My dad is a carpenter and so is one of my siblings. I’m a soldier and an officer for 19 years — that’s a life they know. Whatever they choose to do, I want to encourage them to become involved in any service above themselves, because it will give them a kind of perspective they won’t gain in another way.
“I have also encouraged them to participate in Outward Bound, which is a program I strongly believe in. In 2009, before my diagnosis, I went on an Outward Bound trip with military veterans and it was literally the most powerful and most humbling experience. It was more intimidating than going to Iraq; I’m not kidding. I’ve been speaking to groups of high-schoolers when I can and talk about how important it is for them to develop self-reliance and experience the rigors of life.”
Thoughts on his illness: “I have never been given a prognosis. A doctor in Washington, D.C., told me the only other patient he has seen with my rare form of cancer lasted six months. I want my boys to know how important it is to find the vigor of emotion, the ugly and the good. It’s about doing that thing people say you can’t do. This is living — I’m going down swinging.”
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
“Tell My Sons …” by Lt. Col. Mark Weber with David Murray (Beaver’s Pond Press, $25), available at www.tellmysons.com, Barnes & Noble stores, and through Amazon.
The Webers are donating 50 percent of the book’s proceeds to Operation True Grit, a nonprofit they launched to help support children facing hardships. For information, go to Facebook at Operation True Grit.
Mark Weber also has a Caring Bridge page at www.caringbridge.org/visit/markmweber.