Throughout his more than two year battle with stage four gastrointestinal cancer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber defied the odds again and again.
“All I’ve heard from doctors is: ‘I can’t believe this,’” says Weber, a 1994 graduate of then-Mankato State University. ”I know it sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m not; I’m just not used to hearing that. To me, this is just another adversity. We’re surrounded by tragedy, we’re surrounded by a reminder of how unfair life is. My philosophy has always been: ‘Got it, now what are you going to do about it?’”
Weber, a decorated, 23-year veteran of the U.S. military, chose to battle his illness and write a book for his three sons.
“I’ve had a bucket list since I was 19, so cancer hasn’t changed that,” says Weber, 41. “And now these remarkable things are happening with how our story is inspiring others. It’s a great thing when my whole family can see such goodness come from such a terrible circumstance.”
After General David Petraeus assigned Weber to a key post as a military adviser in Afghanistan, a physical in July 2010 revealed that Weber had terminal cancer. He was given a few months to live.
“It was high point in my life immediately followed by the lowest point, a punch to the gut,” he says. “But all through my life, I’ve tried to find ways to communicate with people about tough subjects, and death is a regular subject for my (military) career because the prospect of death is something we face more than the average person..”
With his customary candor and self-effacing humor, Weber will return to his alma mater January 30 to talk about his life, his condition and read from his book, Tell My Sons.
“I wanted to write about subjects that unite us all,” he says. “I didn’t want the book to be so heavy or painful that my sons or others would dread picking it up.”
In the midst of fighting infections that have a 60 percent mortality rate and admitting that “there are days where I literally feel like I’m going to die,” Weber wrote his book in a mere six weeks and then published it himself.
Tell My Sons grew out of out of the blog Weber started writing on caringbridge.com after his diagnosis. Readers of the blog encouraged Weber to keep writing.
“Some said, ‘If your journaling is anything like this, you should write a book.’” Weber remembers. “Honestly, that’s the last thing I wanted to hear, because I was contemplating death month-to-month, if not every week. I finally relented and decided to write the book, but what I wrote for the public is really still for my boys.”
Starting in July 2012, with the aid of a collaborator, David Murray (“I didn’t want a ghostwriter,” Weber said), Weber whittled 600 pages and 20 years of journal entries down to 230 pages.
“People didn’t think it was possible,” he says. “They weren’t being mean; it wasn’t that they had no faith in me. But clearly, I had more faith in myself, because I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ … My energy had to go somewhere, and this was my way of doing all the things I preach to my kids about it.”
Journals, wisdom, and stories that Weber originally intended for his grandchildren were transformed into no-holds-barred life lessons to his three sons—Matthew, 17, and 12-year old twins, Joshua and Noah.
“I share a good number of embarrassing things in this book,” Weber says. “Not out of spite for myself, but to make sure my kids understand that I don’t float above the ground. I have mistakes that they need to know about. But I have no regrets, and having no regrets doesn’t happen by accident.”
After finishing Tell My Sons, Weber began seeking out endorsements. Comedian and actor Robin Williams, who worked with Weber during a USO tour years earlier, wrote the foreword to “Tell My Sons,” while author Mitch Albom, football legend John Elway, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all offered blurbs for the book’s dust jacket.
“To get those kind of endorsements was unbelievable,” Weber said. “Walter Mondale read the book and said it was one of the most profound stories he’d ever read. I was like, ‘You need to read more, sir.’ But I’m beginning to believe people now when they say my story is inspirational. If enough people tell you such things I guess it’s not a lie, right?”
Lt. Col. Weber’s broad active duty Army career has taken him from serving as a Platoon Leader in Fort Lee, Va. to working under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, and then as Military Assistant to the Iraqi Chief of Defense in Baghdad. During his assignment in Iraq, Weber formed a close bond with Iraqi Chief of Defense Babikir Zabiri. The two remain close, and Weber plans to visit General Zabiri this spring in Iraq.
When Weber retired in August 2012, the highest-ranking military officer in the country-General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-attended the ceremony. “That was unheard of,” Weber says. “You just don’t get that, but there he was.”
Lt. Col. Weber’s awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and the Combat Action Badge. In 2002 he was recognized as the best company grade officer in the Army from a pool of more than 37,000; in 2009 he was selected as the National Officer Recruiting Chief of the Year. Those are just the highlights among a staggering list of achievements.
Weber’s entry into the military began when he enrolled as a JROTC cadet at Cretin High School in St. Paul at the age of 14. After graduating in 1989, Weber made his way south to Mankato, where he enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard, joined ROTC, and four years later graduated in the top 1 percent of cadets in the nation.
Weber, who majored in Social Studies at Minnesota State Mankato, was honored as a Distinguished Alumni in 2004. He plans to visit old professors when he returns to campus and hopes to convince his son Matthew to follow his collegiate path.
“I’ve been trying to talk him into going to Mankato,” Weber says. “I told him it’s such an easy commute from the Cities; it’s just a great little campus, the way it’s organized, and it’s pound-for-pound as good as the education I received at Georgetown in 2003. There are a lot of reasons why it’s a great place to go, especially with those new dorms by the student union.”
Since the release of Tell My Sons, Weber has embraced his new role as a motivational-leadership speaker. His speeches always include straight talk and hard truths. “It’s a heavy topic, but it doesn’t have to be a heavy discussion,” he says. “Believe me, I’m not eager to go, but I’m ready to go. When the time comes, I think we all better be ready to go, because guess what: dying is the mother of all spoiler alerts.”
Mark Weber’s book can be previewed and purchased at www.tellmysons.com, where you can also see the incredible list of endorsements for the book and his speaking events.