TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — The Chaplain Corps declared the 2017 theme for the 9/11 Memorial Ruck and Run to be “Still in the Fight,” a message stemming from Scripture found in the book of Micah. The verse reads: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”
Though often times the conversation revolves around the “big fight,” the Chaplain Corps wanted to emphasize the importance of remaining steadfast in the fight – whatever that fight may be. A fight doesn’t need to be confined to combat zones, but rather many of the fights we struggle with are outside the realm of the physical term. Depression, grief, loss of life and daily stresses are other obstacles that remain at the forefront of the message.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Mark Hurst of the 552nd Air Control Wing gave his personal testimony to a base theater full of civilian and military Airmen during the 9/11 Memorial luncheon, held Sept. 8.
Reflecting on the 16 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the chief talked about the struggles and challenges that have existed in that time, as well as the importance of assessing where we are right now, before looking ahead to see what the future holds.
“It’s important to recognize what we mean by the term, ‘fight,’” Chief Hurst explained. “It’s not necessarily the fight overseas or the future fights, but rather the little battles we face every day and throughout our life. Those battles prepare us and strengthen us for whatever that big fight is – what tests you down to your very core.”
The most prevalent battles for the 552nd ACW chief began during a 2004 deployment to Afghanistan, 10 years and three days into his military career – May 13, 2004, to be exact.
About a month and a half into this deployment, Hurst and about 70 of his closest friends were moving under the cover of darkness, about seven to nine vehicles. They were ambushed.
Rocket-propelled grenades flew over the lead vehicle, small arms fire goes off. As Hurst was preparing to return fire, another RPG exploded over his head, pushing him down to the floor of the Humvee. Trained to pull security, Hurst got up and shook off. Over time, the left side of his body began to feel the effects of the shrapnel burning inside of his body. The chief was taken to initial care before eventually moving to Bagram Air Base to undergo multiple surgeries.
The ambush resulted in Hurst taking shrapnel to the left side of his body and face. He had a softball-size hole in his shoulder, a golf ball-size hole in his back, a 2 ½ inch hole in his neck in addition to his face, which was peppered with shrapnel. The most significant injury he endured came from the shrapnel that hit his cheekbone, went through his eye and severed his optical nerve.
A story that brings chills down your spine or makes the hair on your neck stand up, but to the chief, that’s not what his story is about. Considering himself just a small character in a story full of heroes, Hurst pressed that what came after his 2004 episode in Afghanistan was the real focal point.
Fast forward a little bit, and Hurst was joined by his wife, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force at the time, in Germany before eventually heading home. It wasn’t until he was home alone when the reality truly set in.
“I often say that I was in a cage match with God,” he said. “I found myself, for about four hours, just asking ‘why me, why did this happen to me?’” A cage match that forced him to wrestle with what Col. Geoffrey Weiss, commander of the 552nd ACW, calls true wisdom… The intersection of knowledge, experience and most importantly humility where we find a willingness to turn towards those that love us and can provide assistance in our greatest time of need.
Hurst made the commitment to focus on the things he had, rather than pity himself for what he lacked. That turned out to be a good decision.
“I knew I wasn’t done [serving in the Air Force], and at no point did Melanie think I was either,” Hurst added. “But I didn’t just make the decision to stay in, we had to fight to stay in.”
Determined to stay the course, the chief’s supervisor and commander at the time fought for an Exception to Policy. Approved over a year after his injuries, Hurst had to prove that he was capable of doing the job he was trained to do, by completing 100 percent evaluation of every task associated with his career field, though he would now be unable to deploy and unable to control air strikes.
He focused on the positive.
The chief would go on to pass his evaluations – three days and nights full of Air Combat Command evaluations — with flying colors and was even approached about deploying to Iraq, something he was sure would never be an option for him again.
“I knew I wanted to go, but I wasn’t on the other end of that phone call – 11:30 at night when the doctor is giving my wife the news,” Hurst said. “Before I told them ‘yes’ I told them I would have to have the support of my wife.”
The next conversation was short and simple, though the chief recalled it in awe, holding back tears.
“I told [Melanie] that I wanted to go back. She just said, ‘OK,’…that was it.” A month later, the chief was in Iraq. A year later he was back in Afghanistan as a squadron superintendent. He returned again in 2014 as a group superintendent.
He’d been knocked down but continued to get back up.
“The reason I’m standing here, with the honor to serve as the 552nd Air Control Wing command chief, is not because of the things I’ve done, but because of the heroes around me and what they have done,” he expressed. “I have an amazing wife who stood strong by my side and who has had more courage than I think I could have had; phenomenal teammates and extraordinary leaders that helped pave the way for any success I have had.”
“When we face challenges, we often turn away from people. We try to handle it all on our own, which is the farthest thing from what we should do. Through humility, we should seek help. I spent four hours asking God ‘why me’ and He’s spent the last 13 years showing me why.”