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In Remembrance of Councilman Mark Woods

On the early morning of Friday, May 17th, Clarkstown Councilman Mark Woods Jr. passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 54. To say that his passing is a shock and tragedy is an understatement. His death leaves an enormous hole, not only in the lives of his family and friends, but also in the heart of our community at large and with our veterans. While I have known Mark for about five years, in that time he has become a very dear friend and trusted confidant. During these past years, I have interviewed Mark three times for my “Hoehm Town Happenings“ show. Each interview was unique and I was fascinated by how many sides there were to his personality. Mark was, in my opinion, the quintessential renaissance man.


Mark Woods Jr. was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended Catholic school growing up. He told me that at a very early age he was inspired by his Uncle Greg, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. His admiration for his uncle instilled in him a deep respect for the military and propelled him towards a life of service. Coming out of high school, Mark began to think about pursuing a military career.  The timing of this calling came a bit too late to meet all the application requirements for West Point. Mark applied anyway, but he was never seriously considered so he enrolled in another military college: the Citadel. It all turned out well, as Mark excelled and thrived there, fully embracing the military life. Mark loved learning military history and quickly  became a Civil War aficionado. On my show he once joked how, at the time of the war, people in the South did not refer to it as the “Civil War, but as the War of Northern Aggression.” Upon graduation from the Citadel, Mark enlisted in the U.S. Army and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the infantry. Thus began his lifelong commitment to the military.


Mark was assigned to serve in Europe. He had asked for Hawaii and several other exotic locations, only to learn he was assigned to Germany; Berlin specifically, just at the end of the Cold War. Again, it all turned out well. Mark loved his years in Germany, he met many friends and enjoyed exploring the history surrounding him. Mark’s service there took place in the 1990’s and when the Bosnia crisis ensued he was detailed to the United Nations peacekeeping mission, where he told me that he “received my blue beret.”  After four years, Mark  left the military and successively worked as a corrections officer in Manhattan, Kansas and as a border agent in Texas before coming home to start his career in the NYPD. His first assignment was on foot patrol in Brighton Beach, not too far from where he grew up. Mark had settled comfortably into his law enforcement career and enjoyed it. Then on  September 11, 2001, Mark’s world changed once again with the terrorist attacks that took place.  He had been off duty that day, but was called in to assist with rescue, and then assigned  to recovery efforts on and off for the next year.


As a result of the terrorist attacks, Mark was recalled to the army in 2004. He had been out for nine years. He joked with me how he had received an actual telegram from Western Union informing him of his reinstatement and his first thought was, “does Western Union still exist?” Mark guessed that he would be called back to infantry duty, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging. Instead, the Army had other plans and he was called to work in Civil Affairs, where he received special training. Mark was sent to Iraq and embedded with the Mayor and Police Chief in a city of over 100,000 people. Mark was tasked with teaching  democracy to the people in this city slightly larger than Clarkstown. Making the job far more difficult was the fact that the city was under regular mortar attack at the time, and Mark and members of his team were targeted by terrorists. A group of contractors he worked with to rebuild infrastructure were ambushed and killed by terrorists. Soldiers whom he relied upon and served with were also killed.  And in a great personal loss, a dear friendship Mark had developed with Captain Brian Freeman came to an end when Captain Freeman was killed on January 20, 2007 during an attack by insurgents. Mark would always choke up whenever he mentioned Captain Freeman’s name.


Mark spent a year in Iraq before he was discharged. He returned to New York and resumed his service in the NYPD, where he was promoted to work in the vice squad and then later to the JTT (Joint Terrorism Task Force), one of the most important and prestigious assignments in the department. As a member of the JTT, he worked on human trafficking cases and was proud of his efforts in rescuing underage victims from the illegal sex trade. He developed a strong relationship with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Upon his NYPD retirement Mark intended to eventually go to work there, but first decided to enroll at Rockland Community College to take a few courses in history and other subjects. This proved fortuitous for Mark and our Rockland veteran community, as he was asked by Jonathan Barnwell to  volunteer with the Veterans Service office. Mark really enjoyed this work and was eventually hired by the County and served as deputy director in this office  for several years.


It was here where I first met Mark. We connected immediately and I asked him to be a guest on my television show.  We had a great conversation both on and off camera about his life and career. I learned of his respect and love of General Ulysses S. Grant and all things Civil War. Mark was an avid reader, particularly on the Civil War and military tactics. We started to talk regularly and often would meet to grab a cup of coffee or lunch. During these conversations we would talk about our jobs, what we could do to help veterans,  and many other things. In one of our meetings, Mark asked what I thought about him leaving his job in the County Government to go to BRIDGES to run the Dwyer Veterans Peer Mentoring program. I told him he would be foolish to not take the opportunity. I was so touched and honored that he asked my opinion on this career move.


Mark accepted the job at BRIDGES and took the Dwyer Program to the next level. He grew the program exponentially, regularly connecting with veterans. I can recall within a few weeks of him taking the job that he called me looking for my help . A young veteran in the throes of PTSD and a mental health crisis was living in his car and in desperate need of temporary housing. I could easily see how much passion Mark had in helping this veteran. He was angry, as no housing was readily available through the usual channels, and he asked me if I could help. I made a few calls and the folks at the Doubletree in Nanuet donated a room for a week. Mark got the young veteran situated, stayed with him personally,  and arranged for others to  stay with the man until he was placed in a program later that week. This young man is alive today because of Mark Woods.


During his tenure at BRIDGES, Mark would host social events, exercise events like walking, and paired veterans together for them to talk and connect. He worked to receive grants to support veterans in gaining employment and offered social outings so those suffering from PTSD could feel comfortable bond and talk with each other. Mark helped so many veterans in so many different ways.


Last year, Mark went to Gettysburg with some veterans and returned with a framed portrait of General Grant on horseback, which he gave to me. I treasure it, not only for being a gift from a great man, but also for what Mark said to me when he presented it: “This is General Grant, one of the best leaders in history leading his troops—you are leading our town and I thought you should have this.” I was so touched by this. The picture hangs above my desk in my home. It was also last year when Mark reached out to me to talk about  running for Town Council. As I fully expected, Mark worked hard knocking on doors and connecting with people. He had a unique way to make people feel special and important. Yesterday, at our memorial in town hall, a couple who met Mark while he was campaigning stopped in. They had become fast friends after Mark spoke with them for a half hour on their doorstep. Mark stayed in touch with them throughout the campaign and after taking office. That story tells you exactly who Mark was as a person; he was unique, genuine, honest and caring. He tackled issues, made connections, and made a difference. In five short months on the town board, he made great recommendations on many things from the police department to facilities. One project extremely important to him was a plan to construct a fully accessible playground at Zukor Park to replace the aging playground that stands there now. One of the last things Mark did was review the plans to make sure it would meet the needs of everyone and become one of the largest accessible playgrounds in the state.


Just a few weeks ago, Mark made his last of many trips he took with our veterans, traveling to Saratoga and visiting a number of military forts and museums. The highlight for him was the Grant Cottage, where the group had a private tour. Mark spoke to me about how he did not want to leave, as he was so moved by being in the place where President Grant completed his memoirs before dying of cancer. Even though he had just returned, Mark was already planning other things. He told me he planned to start a group for widows of veterans, as he saw how his mother was dealing with the death of her husband in November. He was also going to arrange another Gettysburg trip later this year for friends,  which I and others from his government life would attend. I was so excited as we were talking about going in the late summer or fall.


As I said before, Mark had so many sides to his personality and varied interests. He was  a huge “Ultimate Fighting” fan and aficionado and he was planning on getting a group together to attend a fight in June. He insisted that Congressman Mike Lawler and I would be part of this group. While I am a fan of boxing, I never developed a taste for UFC, but was looking to try and clear my schedule in order to attend. Still awaiting word from me as to whether I was able to go, Mark came into my office one day while I had the Masters golf tournament on the television.  Mark teased that he didn’t see how anyone can be a fan of golf—it’s just boring watching guys hit a little ball with sticks and told me I would see the light after going to a UFC event.  I am not sure there is anyone else I know that could have convinced me to go on this trip.


I have never met anyone like Mark Woods, Jr. I consider it a pleasure and privilege to call him a friend. He was the consummate public servant with a servant’s heart-  from the military, through law enforcement into local government. He was a soldier, a police officer, an amateur military historian, a licensed funeral director, an adjunct professor, and an exceptional communicator. He accomplished all this while carrying the scars of his own, including the stress from PTSD and hearing loss resulting from his service. Instead of being dragged down, Mark used that experience to propel him to serve others and make their lives better.


And above all, Mark was a family man and a devoted father. In January upon his swearing in, Mark spent some time speaking to my daughter Ciara at the reception. He was concerned as to how he could ensure that his daughter, Maggie, would not be negatively affected by his public service in politics and local government. My daughter, who grew up with me in elected office, only just told me about the details of that conversation and how attentive he was in asking her advice. He wished her well on her final semester in college and wanted to speak with her this summer to follow up. Mark, in typical Mark fashion, only told me that he had a nice conversation with my daughter. That is and was Mark, a man with a gigantic heart and a deep love for life, friends and family. Mark was a true light in a world that can often appear dark.


Mark:  I expect by now you have met up with your dad and Captain Freeman and are enjoying a heavenly cigar with General Grant, asking him about the Wilderness Campaign. Rest in Peace, Mark, we will never forget you and all the lives you have changed for the better.