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Major Mark Banks - Someone You Should Know

Below is a story from the Chicago Tribune (registration required) about Mark Banks - a Chicago police officer and a Major in the Illinois National Guard. He and his son recently served in Iraq about 50 miles apart. I'll post the whole article (since is a reg. req. and it may disappear into the Tribune archives).

Mark Banks is truly a hero in every sense of the word.

Dying vet shows pals how to live
After fighting in Iraq, a cop with cancer vows to give family and friends an unforgettable lesson By Jon Yates Tribune staff reporter Published August 28, 2004

Mark Banks returned from Iraq in April figuring he had cheated death yet again.

As a policeman and soldier, the 46-year-old father of three had seen young men blown away on the battlefield and colleagues gunned down in the line of duty. Always, he had escaped unscathed.

At 6 feet 4 inches and 280 pounds, the former Golden Gloves boxer had never feared anything in his life.

Then the doctor showed him the X-ray.

The cancer started in his stomach but had spread throughout his body--dozens of tumors that invaded his spine, ribs and lymph nodes. When he was diagnosed May 27, his doctor gave him less than a year to live.

That night, Banks sat on his porch and made a decision. A lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department's training academy and a major with the Illinois Army National Guard, Banks has spent most of his life as a leader. He knew his time was limited, but he had one more lesson to give.



"Some people emotionally die before they die. Some people pull the shades and live in isolation. We're not going to do that," Banks said later. "My approach to this is I'm still teaching my friends, my colleagues and my family. Everybody's going to die--and this is how you do it."

He started weekly gatherings every Tuesday night in his East Side home, a sort of ongoing farewell and roast. Banks established two rules for the parties: Everyone brings food, and nobody cries.

As he sat on the couch last Tuesday, about two dozen friends filtered through, most of them fellow police officers and soldiers, all smiling as they recounted war stories and tall tales.

"A lot of people were leery at first because Mark was sick," said Kevin Williams, a Chicago police officer who also served with Banks in the National Guard in Kosovo. "He was on his deathbed, but we were all over there laughing and yukking it up. I don't think it's normal, but those are his wishes."

As Williams cooked spaghetti in the kitchen Tuesday night, Banks sat in the living room, joking with colleagues between coughs.

"He's been dealt a hand, but he wants to go out with some dignity and some class," Williams said. "I don't know if I could do it that way."

On Wednesday, one day after his last weekly party, Banks walked into a Munster, Ind., cancer treatment center for a fresh round of chemotherapy. Hours later, he checked into Munster Community Hospital with fluid around his heart.

Banks remained hospitalized Friday evening, but friends and family members hope he will recover and return home next week.

"He was away for so long. When he came home [from Iraq], it was a sense of relief," said his brother, Chris Banks, who also is a police officer. "It's hard to figure it out. After all he went through and then to come home and have this happen. ... It makes you realize how much there is that you can be doing."

Mark Banks grew up in Trumbull Park Homes, a 254-unit public housing complex on East 106th Street. His mother, Anita Banks, raised her five children alone, meaning Mark, the oldest, often served as a father figure to his younger siblings.

Anita Banks said her son was always tough. When he was 7, he ruptured his eardrum but told no one. At a checkup, a doctor asked if he had been crying or complaining. Anita Banks said no.

"He would always keep everything inside," she said. "I say that he's so strong, he's like a robot."

Banks attended St. Francis de Sales High School on a basketball scholarship and worked in a steel mill after graduation, earning enough to move out of public housing. When the mill closed in 1980, Banks was left unemployed, and he and his young wife, Lorie, moved back into Trumbull Park Homes.

"His life's motto has always been you work for what you want. No one gives you anything," said Shawne Duck, who grew up with Banks, and whose brother, Mike Duck, is among his best friends. "For a lot of the kids who grew up with him, he's our hero."

Banks enrolled at South Suburban College in South Holland, then transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago. He joined the military because an ROTC recruiter told him he could earn money for college.

His plan was to earn a civil engineering degree and build bridges. But his uncles, both Chicago police officers, urged him to apply for a job in the department. When he was accepted, he dropped out of college and became a patrolman.

He later re-enrolled at UIC part time and earned his degree. But by then, he was a cop.

"We come from a long line of veterans and police officers," Banks said. "It's kind of the family business."

Mark and Lorie had three sons, now 17, 21 and 23, and settled into a bungalow in the East Side neighborhood. When he made enough money, he bought the house next door for his elderly in-laws.

Police, the military and his family became the major focuses of his life. On family vacations, he took them to Civil War battlegrounds, and while in Europe, to the site of Napoleon's defeat in Waterloo, Belgium, and Gen. George Patton's grave in Luxembourg.

Banks rose through the ranks in both the Police Department and the military, patrolling some of the city's roughest areas and frequently traveling abroad for Army training. The demands of serving his city and his country often kept him away from home, sometimes on holidays, but family members say he was doing what he loved.

By the time he shipped off to Iraq last year, he was a major in the Army and a lieutenant with the police, working for the department's training academy. While in Iraq, he served just 50 miles from where one of his sons was serving and got to see him three times, once surprising him on leave.

At home, Lorie Banks watched CNN every night, worried she would see news that either her son or her husband had been killed. Both made it home safely. Neither knew that cancer was already ravaging Mark Banks' body.

When he came home in April, Banks passed a physical for the Police Department and started back to work May 14.

Four days later, after becoming winded while jogging, he went to the doctor for an X-ray. He knew immediately upon seeing the picture that he was in trouble.

"You could see a bunch of stuff that isn't supposed to be there," Banks said. "Your whole life changes in a second."

On May 26, he went on medical leave from work. A day later, doctors confirmed he had cancer.

His physician, Dr. Mohammed Y. Ali, said he told Banks that the cancer was incurable and that without chemotherapy, he would live just a few months. With chemotherapy, he could extend his life several months past that.

Banks started chemotherapy the next day. The regimen has taken a toll. On weeks when he gets the treatments, Banks is laid up for five days, throwing up every half-hour.

Other days, he is traveling with his family, taking visitors and living each moment as if it is his last.

At the Police Department, where officers are legendary for their support of ailing colleagues, friends organized a benefit for him on Aug. 4. They planned for about 100 people. Instead, 800 showed up.

In the weeks since, the Tuesday night gatherings have become a ritual, with friends and colleagues paying tribute to Banks' quiet and easygoing manner.

The laughter is real, but pain lies just beneath.

"It's just something that's always in the back of your mind, the reality of it," Chris Banks said. "But like everything else, he's showing us the way."

On the porch, Anita Banks struggled to keep her composure, telling stories of her son's youth and trying not to think about the future.

"You've got to be so strong in front of him because he doesn't want anyone crying. It's hard," she said, holding back tears. "We've always been a family, and I can't see him not being here. So I can't look past today."

Mark Banks insists he's not afraid of death. He's done everything he's wanted to do in life, and he's spending his final months surrounded by friends and family.

"Being a police officer and a soldier, death's always around the corner," Banks said. "I saw kids get blown away in Iraq and police officers killed in the line of duty who never got to say goodbye to their families. I've got nothing to cry about. I got to come home again."

Mark Banks and I went through ROTC together. His nickname was Grandpa Banks because he was about ten years older than the average cadet.

I am asking a few of his friends at the Police Academy who would let me know if there is anything that we can do to help.

Please keep Mark and his family in your prayers.

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