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Tevlin: Minn. soldier honored by a friend - and the Joint Chiefs

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 17, 2012 - 7:06 AM

There is a time-honored tradition of recognizing and awarding U.S. Army officers when they retire from service. Lt. Col. Mark Weber is neither retired, nor planning to retire, but Gen. Martin Dempsey, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking military officer in the country, will come to Rosemount Thursday to give Weber the Army's Legion of Merit award. He will also give the Superior Service Award to Weber's wife, Kristin.

Weber is characteristically blunt when he explains why: "He wants to pin a medal on me while I'm upright."

Weber has gastrointestinal cancer that has affected his liver. He is on disability leave from the Army pending a medical board evaluation that could take a year. "I'm more likely to die first," he said.

So Dempsey and Gen. John Vessey, the Minnesota native and chair of the Joint Chiefs in the early 1980s, will be there to honor the Webers for their 23 years of service to the country. He will also meet with members of the Minnesota National Guard.

The Legion of Merit is awarded to U.S. and foreign military and political figures. It is awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service and achievement, but is typically awarded to military general officers and colonels who have occupied command or very senior staff positions in their respective services. So Weber is in elite company.

Weber first met Dempsey in Iraq when Dempsey replaced Gen. David Petraeus as the top military commander in the country. Dempsey became Weber's boss, and friend.

Dempsey has a master's degree from Duke University in literature and wrote his thesis on poet W.B. Yeats, yet Weber says he is down-to-earth and "street smart."

"I just knew him as Marty, before he became famous," said Weber.

Because he learned to speak Kurdish, Weber quickly became valuable to Dempsey and other military leaders. He became the go-between with Dempsey and Gen. Babakir Zibari, chief of defense for Iraq.

"I would be able to catch the little things that were important," said Weber. "If Zibari was irritated about a certain road, I would know about it because I was sitting on his couch at 1 a.m."

Weber and Dempsey shared triumphs and tragedies in Iraq. They also shared personal hurdles. Dempsey was diagnosed with throat cancer the same month Weber discovered he had gastrointestinal cancer, in July 2010. They both underwent treatments.

"Obviously, he fared better than me," said Weber.

Weber said they became friends, ever mindful that rank separated them in many ways. "I never forgot who was in charge," said Weber. "I had a position of responsibility that you can use irresponsibly. I tried not to do that."

Weber says his boss "has this sensibility about him, all great generals do. The ego is there, but it doesn't ride him like an elephant."

While he's proud of his award, Weber sounds even more proud of Kristin's recognition.

"I think that the adversity she has faced was often overshadowed by my service," he said. "A spouse has to sit home and wonder. They are not in the driver's seat, and they are blindfolded and swerving across the road."

"I'll be honest, [Kristin] does not like the military," said Weber. "If she had a choice, this would not be the life she would chose to lead. Yet her support has been tireless and unending."

Frequent moves were hard on the Webers and their three children, he said. Culturally, it was more difficult for them than him.

"When we moved from Virginia to Alabama, I didn't get Alabama, I got the military [culture]," said Weber. "She got Alabama. When you say 'ya, you betcha' in Alabama, they take notice."

As for his health, Weber says it's "non-stop up and down, mentally and physically. I have pain all the time."

"But my morale is high," Weber said. "I know countless soldiers who got no goodbye. It was just over, like that.

"I get what a lot of people don't get," he said. "I get a couple of more laps."

And a visit from the highest-ranking soldier in America, his friend.

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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