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Vet killed in coaster fall mixed grit, humor

Jul. 14, 2011 - 09:09AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 14, 2011 - 09:09AM  |  
Army Sgt. James Hackemer arrives at Buffalo Niagara Airport in Cheektowaga, N.Y., in this undated photo. Hackemer, a veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, was killed after he was thrown from a roller coaster on Saturday.
Army Sgt. James Hackemer arrives at Buffalo Niagara Airport in Cheektowaga, N.Y., in this undated photo. Hackemer, a veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, was killed after he was thrown from a roller coaster on Saturday. (Robert Kirkham / The Buffalo News via AP)
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GOWANDA, N.Y. — James Hackemer's siblings leaned on each other and laughed through their tears during a celebration of his life Thursday, recalling a combat veteran with a fear of spiders, the baby in a tight-knit family of six with an iron will to make the most of an utterly altered life without legs.

"I am just going to miss him just so much," Jody Hackemer said inside the Assembly of God Church in the family's rural hometown of Gowanda. A Patriot Guard and veterans in military dress stood in silent respect outside and an overflow crowd of mourners dabbed at tears under a white tent.

One hour into a weekend amusement park outing Friday at Darien Lake Theme Park & Resort, Hackemer, who'd lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, was ejected from the towering Ride of Steel coaster he'd been determined to ride again and was killed.

Thursday's service included an audio clip of Hackemer from an interview he'd given after arriving home more than seven months after his 2008 injury.

"I'm going to live my life to the fullest from here on out," he told WIVB-TV. "No regrets. Still looking forward to my life ahead of me."

He will be buried later at Arlington National Cemetery.

After he returned from three years of rehabilitation in Northeastern hospitals, Hackemer would set off turkey-hunting in an all-terrain wheelchair, or toil for hours atop a lawn tractor at the 40-acre family farm in southwestern New York.

"I never heard a negative word come out of his mouth," lifelong family friend Marty Mescall said. "James is like that last drop of wine. Incredible!"

Investigators have ruled his death an accident but said the park clearly requires riders on the coaster, which offers only a lap bar as protection, to have two legs. Park operators won't face criminal charges, Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha said.

When he got home, the 29-year-old Army sergeant was thriving again in the hills-and-hollows backcountry south of Buffalo where he grew up, mixing grit and humor in his struggle to feel useful and close to normal.

When an aunt remarked she had shrunk a few inches in old age, Hackemer shot back, "I lost 3 feet in a matter of seconds!" The leafy old homestead his parents fitted with ramps to accommodate his homecoming in April reverberated with laughter.

"He always said the wittiest things to make people laugh, and nine times out of 10 it was directed at himself," Jody Hackemer said.

Rather than being a thrill-seeker, "he had a thirst for life and wanted to do as much as possible," his 37-year-old sister, a New York Army National Guard recruiter, said in the days following his death. While it might seem risky for him to ride a roller coaster, "he never would have thought anything like this would have happened."

Hackemer and his nephew Ashton Luffred, a college sophomore, had made a beeline for the Ride of Steel while his daughters, ages 3 and 4, headed for kiddie rides with their three aunts and six cousins. He wasn't wearing his prosthetic legs as he shifted from his wheelchair into a front seat.

Another of his four sisters, Catie Marks, 30, said Luffred told her the attendants didn't challenge the disabled veteran's desire to ride the coaster. "Not one objection," she said.

Caught in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad in March 2008 — his heart stopped twice, he had two strokes and was in a coma for six weeks — Hackemer was missing all of his left leg and part of a hip, and his right leg was amputated above the knee.

Two weeks before dying, Hackemer had returned from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was fitted with a new set of prosthetics.

"At Walter Reed, he was very dependent," Marks said. "But back home, he was showering himself and becoming increasingly independent physically."

Like all but one of his siblings, Hackemer joined the military out of high school. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and was on his second tour as a military policeman when his lead vehicle in a convoy came under attack.

His severe injuries sank his dreams of leaving the Army that year, buying his parents' farmhouse and becoming a New York state trooper. His wife, Alycia, a fellow soldier from his unit, was pregnant at that time with their second child, and they split up within six months.

Three years later, Hackemer remained confined to short steps.

"His goal was to be done with the therapies and the hospitals and just get home and move forward with his life," said his sister, Jody. Instead of charting a long-term plan, "it was, ‘What can I do next, and how?' He was realistic."

Hackemer took a turkey-hunting trip to the Pennsylvania mountains in May. He relished cutting the family farm's 5 acres of grass with a tractor equipped with a seat belt and hand controls. His next target was learning to drive a hand-controlled car.

Mescall, 59, who owns a neighboring farm, helped Hackemer with grueling daily therapy. That included a three-mile ride on a bicycle with hand pedals and painful exercises in which three volunteers "hold him up, pick him up, twist him around," Mescall said.

Many people would have given up the fight after the horrors Hackemer endured, and "he was absolutely the opposite," Mescall said. "It was a very difficult thing to walk on those prosthetic legs, but he never, ever, not once, said, ‘Ah, I can't do this.'"

"He loved life. If there's any video of the accident, I guarantee you he went out with a smile on his face and his hands raised high in the air."

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