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Stories That Live Forever

May 24, 2007

To contribute to the Damien Ficek Memorial Scholarship for Athletic Medicine, please CLICK HERE

Editor's Note: Located at the center of the Washington State University campus is the WSU Veterans Memorial. On the memorial are engraved the names of Washington State students, faculty, and staff who served their country in violent conflicts that took place far from the peace and tranquility of the Palouse. Each name represents a life sacrificed either in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, or the Global War on Terrorism.

Behind each name is a story.

This feature series conveys the stories connected with four names on the memorial. All had an association with Washington State Athletics in some manner. With Memorial Day approaching, the series is not only written to honor the four Washington State students who gave their lives for their country, it is dedicated to each name on the memorial, and to their stories.

Part V: On the east side of the Washington State University Veterans Memorial are plaques, set adjacent to each other, displaying the names of the Washington State students who fell in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf wars. Directly across these plaques is a plaque, set alone; etched at its top are the words "Global War on Terrorism." Below it are four names of WSU students who gave their lives in Iraq. The four are among the over 4,000 United States servicemen and servicewomen who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001.

Three of the names are Jaime Campbell, Brian Freeman, and James Shull. This is the story of the fourth.

A Guy You Want On Your Team

By Jason Krump
Washington State University Athletics

In an office window near the entrance of the Washington State Athletic Training department is a poster. The poster honors a student who worked in the department only for a brief period of time, but his memory will always be present to those he worked with.

Sergeant Damien Ficek was not a participant in intercollegiate athletics when he attended WSU.

And that is the only thing he was "not" in his life.

This is what he was: An accomplished student and athlete; an athletic training student; an Army Ranger; a member of the ROTC, a National Guardsman, and a husband, son, and brother.

However, to fully encapsulate Damien Ficek's life, one must not only explain what he was, but what he is.

An inspiration.

"When I think of Damien, he inspires me to say that I can live a better life," WSU Head Athletic Trainer Bill Drake said.

His life came to an end, Dec. 30, 2004, in Iraq, when his patrol was attacked by enemy forces using small arms fire near Baghdad. But though his life ended just two days shy of his 27th birthday, Damien Ficek's story lives on through the people he touched.

A soldier

Ficek graduated from Beaverton High School in June 1996. In addition to being a proficient student, Ficek was an accomplished athlete as evidenced by being selected as the co-captain for both the football and wrestling teams.

Two months after graduating from high school, Ficek enlisted in the United States Army. There, he secured the honor of becoming a Ranger, an elite special operations unit of the Army.

Becoming a Ranger is not something just given to a soldier; it is earned, in every sense of the word.

Only the strongest, both mentally and physically, of soldiers can earn the distinction of Ranger. This is the same unit that scaled the cliffs of Pointe-Du-Hoc on D-Day; the same unit that fought so valiantly in Somalia in October of 1993; the same unit of Pat Tillman, Arizona State alumnus and former NFL player, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004.

"Those are basically the top one percent of the Army," said Jim Zuba, Senior Associate Director, WSU Alumni Relations; ROTC Commander at WSU from 2001-04; and a Ranger himself. "What Damien went through with Ranger training tells you is that it is a pretty tough person that can get through that. The failure rate is about 75 percent."

 

"He was mentally tough and he wouldn't back down when you gave him physical challenges; he always excelled at them."
Jim Zuba

Ficek served with the second Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash., until June 2000.

In July 2002, Ficek enlisted in the Army National Guard. He was an infantryman assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, a part of the 81st Brigade Combat Team. At the same time, he arrived at Washington State University and began classes during fall semester 2002.

As a student at WSU, Ficek enrolled in the athletic training program under the guidance of Drake. He also was in the ROTC program under the supervision of Zuba.

"Best cadet in the program," is how Zuba described Damien. "He was a very selfless individual. Because of that, it made him very special."

"You come across those type of people very rarely," Zuba added, "that have all of those qualities of humility, selflessness, that want to do the right thing, and that will go the extra mile for somebody."

It was his experiences as a Ranger that served Damien well in his ROTC training, according to Zuba.

"He was mentally tough and he wouldn't back down when you gave him physical challenges; he always excelled at them," Zuba said.

A loss of hearing in one ear, which most likely occurred during his time as a Ranger, prevented Ficek from being commissioned an officer.

"Because of his hearing loss, he didn't meet the medical qualifications," Zuba said. "But he could still serve in the National Guard as a squad leader."

Despite not being able to graduate with his ROTC class, Ficek completed the training, and he attended the ROTC commencement in support of his classmates.

"That is what kind of kid this is," Drake said.

Unselfishness

At WSU, Ficek was in the initial stages of the athletic training program. He had spent his first year going through rotations, working with a variety of sports. Drake said he would have been assigned a sport once he completed his first year of the program.

 

In 2003, Ficek's National Guard unit was activated and he was forced to withdraw from classes.

True to his unselfish nature, Ficek's thoughts were of others when he told Drake of his leaving school.

"He came in and said to me, `I am going to need to resign my position; I just want to be able to apply again when I get back,' " Drake said. "I told him, `Damien, we will hold your spot for you when you get back. Don't sweat that. Your spot is here and will be waiting for you when you get back.

"But he responded that he didn't want to take someone else's spot," Drake added. "He told me that this could be an 18-month deal, but I said I didn't care if he was gone for two years, his spot was safe, and we will look forward to him coming back. The key part that sticks in my mind was him being humble enough to say, `Hey just give me a chance to reapply.' "

While in Iraq, Ficek kept in touch with Drake occasionally.

"He said he was still very much interested in coming back to the program and he couldn't wait to be back," Drake said.

Ficek's duty at Iraq was to help train new members of the Iraqi National Guard. He had spent more than a year in the country as the calendar turned to December 2004. According to newspaper accounts, two weeks prior to his death, Ficek sent an e-mail to a friend saying he was looking forward to returning home, perhaps as soon as March.

But it was not to be.

"It was pretty rough," Zuba said regarding when he learned of Damien's passing. "You never want to see that happen but it was really hard. Between his athletic training, the ROTC, his family, and the military, we lost a great man. It was devastating.

"It still is rough."

The news of Ficek's passing was equally shocking to Drake.

"The thing I told everybody at the time was that I am not experienced with stuff like this," he said. "I didn't expect it to happen, I thought there is no doubt he is coming back.

"You totally take it for granted," Drake added. "All of a sudden I felt older because this is a student, and a kid, with his whole life in front of him."

Ficek left behind his wife Kyla; parents Donna and Danny Vian and Dean and Suzanne Dibble; and two brothers, Dustin and John.

Still a member of the team

Though he is gone, Damien Ficek has a permanent place with the Washington State Athletic Training department.

To remember Damien, Drake created the Damien Ficek Memorial Scholarship for Athletic Medicine. What started out as a way to honor Damien became a rallying point for all alumni of the WSU athletic training department.

"The Cougar athletic trainer alumni are a great group of people," Drake said. "There are probably 250 alums across the nation."

 

Drake credits four individuals: Ed Orr, Sally Mays, John Anderson, and Scott Shaw, with spearheading the effort to raise the funds for the scholarship.

"Those four really took this under their wing," Drake said. "They went out and raised the $25,000. The thing took off, and we had that milestone in under the one-year mark."

"We both feel very strongly about our heritage to Washington State and how much the program has done for us and how much athletic training means to us," said Mays, an athletic trainer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "This scholarship is certainly in honor of this young man, who sounded like he was absolutely incredible, and his family."

At the end of 2006, the Ficek scholarship amount was at $27,145. The needed amount of a fully-funded scholarship, in order the cover the full annual cost of education at WSU, is over $400,000.

"We don't want to just stop with the fact that this is endowed," Mays added. "The scholarship is still growing and there still is an opportunity for people to help with this."

The scholarship's first recipient is Devan Baker. He is the first of countless individuals who will attend WSU and join an athletic training team that will always carry the memory of Damien Ficek to guide them.

"Damien was humble, helpful, and professional," Drake said. "If you can do just those three things, think how much of an impact you can have on people. What a legacy to leave for these students who will come through every year."

"Damien was a person of the highest quality with values and morals," Zuba said. "A person you always want on your team; regardless of what the task was, that is a guy you want on your team."

To contribute to the Damien Ficek Memorial Scholarship for Athletic Medicine please click Here

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