Today we wrap our wings around the family and friends of former Landstuhl patient and Hero SGT James "Hack" Hackemer.
James T. Hackemer died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.(See earlier posts about SPC Knapp here.)
That's what the family of the double amputee wants people to know as they mourn his passing. Hackemer, a veteran of the Iraq War, died Friday when he fell from a roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort. He was 29.
"I have no doubt in my mind that he died happy," his sister, Jody Hackemer, said Saturday as the family gathered at Hackemer's parents' farmhouse in Gowanda. "I know that's hard to comprehend. But really, he was doing what he wanted to do. And that's the important thing."
The family does not believe the Genesee County theme park did anything wrong in letting the wounded veteran on the ride, the sister said.
"We in no shape or form hold Darien Lake accountable," the sister said. "They weren't negligent. It's nobody's fault. It was an accident. James thought it wasn't an issue."
He and members of his family had just arrived at the theme park about an hour earlier for a weekend family trip.
Hackemer's sister, Roxanne Luffred, had driven from her home in Maryland with her family and Hackemer's two young daughters, who live most of the time with their mother in Newport News, Va.
Hackemer had custody of the girls -- Kaelynn, 4, and Addison, 3 -- for two weeks every other month. The girls arrived Thursday, and he was thrilled to be spending time with them, his sister said.
He was also determined to get on his favorite ride, the Ride of Steel, at the amusement park, a favorite hangout from his youth. He hadn't been back to the theme park since before he lost his legs in Iraq three years ago.
Hackemer was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he got on the roller coaster, his sister said. He had been getting around the theme park using a wheelchair. Jody Hackemer also said she did not know whether park attendants questioned whether it was safe for her brother to get on.
"I would imagine that they would have and did," she said. But that wouldn't have stopped her brother, she added.
"James was very adamant and strong-willed -- very strong-willed. He knew what he wanted. He's really hard to say no to. I can attest to that."
But the wounded veteran's family took comfort in knowing that Hackemer had savored every moment of his life since surviving a bomb blast in March 2008.
He nearly died twice as doctors raced to save his life, his family recalled.
"They actually told us he would never wake up," Jody Hackemer said. "And if he did, they said he would be a complete vegetable because of a traumatic brain injury."
After several weeks, James Hackemer proved his doctors wrong. He has spent the last three years doing physical therapy and learning how to get around with a wheelchair and on prosthetic legs.
The wounded veteran was missing both legs and his left hip.
Just two weeks ago, he went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to be fitted for new prosthetics.
In the meantime, he moved in with his parents in Gowanda. He bought a hand-operated lawnmower and would cut the grass on his family's property. He also enjoyed using a hand-pedaled bicycle and spending time with friends and family.
"He was living and relishing it," his sister said. "He had no regrets of what happened to him. Life was what it was. He had such a great attitude moving forward."
She recalled that her brother was deeply upset when Alex Knapp, another soldier who had lost his legs in the same bomb blast, died in October. He suffered a heart attack after playing sled hockey, which had become his passion after he was wounded.
She said Knapp's death parallels her brother's.
"He was doing what he wanted," she said of her brother. "He wanted nothing but this. He was doing what he loved. That's what gives me peace."
Please take a moment to watch this video of the Memorial Day "Ride to Remember" as almost 200 motorcyclists drive past the Hackemer home near Gowanda, NY in James' honor in May of 2008, just two months after he was hurt. We know this caring community will lift James' family up again during this difficult time.
Our love and prayers go out to James' family and friends. His memory will live on forever in our hearts.