By Jay Cook |
RED BANK – If not for the clean-shaven face and military-style buzz cut, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to compare one local resident to a famous movie character known for his long-distance runs.
Although Alabama’s Forrest Gump famously ran across the country because he just felt like it, Red Bank resident Mark Otto is on a mission, one mile at a time.
“It is funny because Forrest Gump had all these coincidences that happened to him,” the 47-year-old said of the similarities, which he is often reminded of. “A lot of my story is that, with the rucking, I’m meeting all these people, learning about their stories.”
Rucking is the soldier’s practice of walking or running – or in Otto’s case uniquely shuffling – long distances in the field, carrying everything a they need for a mission right on their back. In some cases, the loaded packs, or rucksacks, can weigh anywhere from 80 to 120 pounds, filled with boots, clothes and water, among other necessities.
This military exercise has now reached the general public, and is even being incorporated into fitness routines. Through this intense workout, Otto is trying to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans returning from combat.
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, who served from 1988 through 1992 – with two overseas combat deployments during the Panama Invasion (1989-1990) and Desert Storm (1990- 1991) – giving back to the veteran community became his goal after the unforeseen death of a friend.
Last January, in conjunction with veteran service organizations Team Red, White & Blue (RWB) and The Headstrong Project, Otto embarked on a 1,000-mile ruck march in honor of his late friend and fellow Marine Pete Koffman, who died in 2010 in a PTSD-related suicide.
On average, 22 veterans and former military personnel commit suicide every day, according to the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County.
It was a loss that struck Otto to the core, while also acting as an inspiration to get out and make a difference.
“I thought to myself that someday, there’s going to be some way I can actually honor him,” he said.
Throughout 2016, Otto was a one-man rucking crew, logging upwards of 70 miles per week at his peak, with his 40-pound pack strapped to his back.
No matter the weather, either snow in mid-January or blistering heats during the dog days of summer, it would be hard to miss him; he proudly wore his signature bright red T-shirt from Team RWB, accompanied by a large American flag in tow.
Inside Otto’s rucksack are a number of items, mostly essentials. He carries about three liters of water, with a hose wrapping down the strap and a nozzle in close reach so he can drink while moving.
Also packed in are a pair of dark blue Fox Racing gloves; a small-scale medical kit filled with Band-Aids, gauze and a couple aspirin; a waterproof jacket and an Eddie Bauer brand flashlight, fitted for his head during nighttime rucks.
When on the roads, Otto usually traversed Red Bank, Rumson, Fair Haven, down to Hartshorne Woods and along Ocean Avenue, from Sandy Hook to Long Branch.
While the challenge honored his Marine brother, Otto felt he needed a memento to present to Koffman family. With about 200 miles remaining, he decided to carry the flag with him, a gift for his late friend’s family.
Known to locals as “the flag guy,” he welcomed all of the car horn beeps, waves from folks and the sidewalk selfies. In the end, Otto said he felt like the harbinger for a cause that has been neglected nationally.
“From my point of view, I’m hoping that these people forget about what divides us all as Americans,” he said regarding those who see him on his ruck marches. “When they see the flag, for that one moment, they start thinking that we’re all connected, we’re in this together.”
On Aug. 12, Otto finished his 1,000 miles, with the ceremonial final steps concluding at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan – the location where, in his eyes, his reconnection with the veteran community began.
In 1992, as a 22-year-old veteran fresh out of the service, Otto struggled with assimilating back into society. Admittedly a “hell-raiser” at Westfield High School, his adult life only consisted of military training and combat.
After promptings to visit the New York Stock Exchange from a friend, Otto landed a junior clerk job on Wall Street from a Vietnam War veteran. That consisted of running tickets to brokers and reporting deals to other firms – the epitome of an entry-level position.
“I was in the mix with everybody who had been to college and had a very different lifestyle than I had,” he said. “It was really hard to connect with people because there wasn’t anyone who understood me.”
However, Otto carved out a niche in his first firm, Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, and found his way into the world of Wall Street, trading stocks in high pressure environments daily.
After 9/11, when Otto and his soon-to-be-wife Jennifer were on the final PATH train that stopped at the World Trade Center that morning, he was at the forefront of volunteer efforts orchestrated on Wall Street.
From 2011 to 2014, he was organizing overseas shipments to 24 deployed units in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for over 4,000 pounds of goods delivered during that period.
Otto was also at the helm of a veteran’s internship program sponsored by the New York Stock Exchange, from 2012 to 2013, giving veterans in college the same opportunity he had right out of the service.
“That’s when I really started reconnecting with people that were in the military,” he recalled. “It felt great to give back to people who walked in my shoes that I had worn for so many years.”
Although the initial 1,000-mile march in honor of Koffman is completed – culminating with a visit to his grave in Virginia Beach – Otto has continued to unite veteran service organizations with the public.
While still a licensed trader on Wall Street, he recently accepted a position as vice president of the United War Veterans Council, based in New York City.
In his first act as vice president, Otto completed a 100-mile ruck march for Lisa McCabe’s second grade class at Lincroft Elementary School. A presentation followed, along with the gifting of an American flag that flew for decades in the New York Stock Exchange.
Currently, Otto is about 120 miles into his next 1,000-mile ruck march, and has engaged with multiple local groups along the way.
He volunteers with the Backpack Crew at their location at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank. Each Thursday, he helps gather and fill backpacks for young schoolchildren to take home throughout the weekend, ensuring a healthy meal is available while away from school.
Otto also collaborates with Serenity Stables from Combat to Calm, an equine therapy farm in Middletown, to aid wounded veterans and those suffering from PTSD.
He hopes the culmination of these efforts, from the tiring ruck marches to the one-on-one volunteer work, can influence others to join in and help support veterans transitioning back into normal, day-to-day life.
“I really hope that a lot of the things I do inspire people,” he said. “There’s a lot of great people who may be sitting on the sidelines, see something like this and will be compelled to act on their own, to help veterans in some way, shape or form.”
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