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Looking Beyond Ourselves

By Staff | Aug 16, 2015

“You are the only one who can decide how you respond to adversity.” That was at the root of the wisdom gifted to our community by Aaron Thomas Wednesday night. The Thomas family presents an extreme example of grace and resilience most of us could not achieve.

That’s no reason to not try.

It isn’t that you cannot feel your feelings or wish things were better. But as Thomas said, there are many people who wish they had what you have, that their lives are as good as yours is. It’s easy to go along with a fairly satisfying life and believe it’s just what you deserve, until you face adversity. “No one deserves what we went through,” Aaron Thomas said. “But adversity is what gives you your platform and opportunity to make a difference.”

At the press conference just after his father’s murder, Aaron Thomas stepped up to the mic and thanked the community and sports world at large for their support of his family. Then he said of the family of the shooter, Mark Becker, “We ask that people pray for them as well, as they are going through a lot.”

Mark Becker’s mother, Joan Becker, will be speaking at Iowa Lakes Community College convocation in Estherville Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. . Becker is on the other side from the Thomases of the tragic/triumphant story out of Parkersburg. Her son, Mark, is the one who went into the Aplington-Parkersburg schools bus barn and shot Aaron’s father, Coach Ed Thomas.

The Beckers could have hidden from the world for a long time. They could have chosen to leave town or leave the state. It certainly helped that the Thomas family asked that the community also support and comfort the Beckers, who were not only grieving for Coach Thomas but also for a lost son. Instead, David and Joan Becker, in their shock and devastation, went to the root problem: there was very little they could do to help Mark, then 24, get help for his mental illness. Successful treatment would have prevented the shooting. Once he was treated, Mark was remorseful for having killed his friend and former coach. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia only after he was incarcerated, in spite of his parents seeking help at 11 different facilities or programs, the delusions were behind Mark’s irreversible act that day.

Since Mark’s life sentence for the murder of Ed Thomas, the Beckers have been dedicated to mental health advocacy. Many mental illnesses strike in young adulthood, but privacy laws mean the parents and families cannot find out from the hospital, facility or clinic if their loved one is on medication, what is happening with their treatment, or even when they are released.

“There’s so much stigma around mental illness, as if it’s a moral failing. We can talk about a disease in the heart or the liver. Mental illness is a disease in the brain. Why can’t we treat it as another illness?”

Becker says her book, entitled Sentenced to Life: Mental Illness, Tragedy and Transformation, is more than the story of her son and his suffering. It’s also the tale of a broken mental health system that leaves families at a loss to help their loved ones and leaves tragedy in its wake.

Two families were transformed when Mark Becker shot Coach Ed Thomas on June 24, 2009. They could have been transformed for the worse the coach’s family finding it impossible to go on having lost their leader and patriarch, the ill young man’s family leaving behind a hole as they pack up to start over. But they stayed. The Thomases reached out. The tear was mended. It’s not that things will be the same, it’s that life can get a little bigger, let in a little more sunlight, when we look beyond ourselves and our own trouble.