SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, –
More than seven years after the death of U.S. Army Pvt. Nick Madaras, U.S. Army Col. Thomas Boccardi, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, still vividly remembers the night of the hero flight that carried Madaras home from Iraq.
"It was a very dark and quiet night," said Boccardi. "I walked out with a battle buddy, and when we reached the tarmac there were three hundred other people out there standing in formation, waiting for the helicopter to arrive to pick up Nick and take him home."
Being in a war zone, the helicopter landed with no lighting on the runway and with its lights turned off.
"When the aircraft arrived, I remember hearing it and feeling it cutting the air," said Boccardi. "We all came to attention as one. They brought the casket out and loaded it into the aircraft, and then it slowly lifted off into the night and disappeared. No one said anything, it was just silent. All we could feel was the wind from the helicopter and there was this profound sense of loss."
Madaras was one of Boccardi's soldiers during a deployment to Iraq in 2006. He was killed by an improvised explosive device, Sept. 3, 2006, just a few months before his unit was scheduled to return home.
However, the legacy of Pvt. Nick Madras doesn't end on a dark night on a helipad in Iraq. Rather, his legacy lives on through others who are fulfilling a dream Madaras began during that deployment.
"Nick was part of the security detachment for the battalion commander," said Boccardi. "Many times while he was doing his job, he would interact with the local children and he noticed how much they loved soccer but didn't have any soccer balls. So when he went home on leave just prior to when he was killed, he asked his dad to send him soccer balls that he could give to the kids."
Shortly after Madaras was killed, the non-profit organization "Kick for Nick" was established in his honor as a way to carry on his dream. Through "Kick for Nick," soccer balls are donated and distributed to underprivileged children around the world. The organization is run by Nick's father, Bill Madaras.
"Bill Madaras refuses to let Nick's memory simply drift off into the night," said Boccardi. "He's making Nick a part of something bigger, something more. He's already given his son--the most precious of gifts. And yet he's still giving more to this day. He's an example of what being a great citizen is all about."
Recently, Joint Task Force-Bravo partnered with the Honduras Special Olympics and the Honduran Air Force to host the Special Olympics soccer tournament at Soto Cano Air Base. During the festivities, Boccardi personally presented soccer balls, donated by "Kick for Nick," to each team competing in the event.
As he handed out the balls, Boccardi recounted the story of Pvt. Madaras through an interpreter. When he finished speaking, Gracia Mendez, Executive Director of Special Olympics-Honduras, took the microphone and requested a moment of silence in memory of Pvt. Nick Madaras.
"That moved me," said Boccardi. "It was akin to us standing out at that airfield in Iraq again. Everyone standing there in unison, heads bowed, remembering a fallen comrade. This was someone they didn't even know, yet they cared about. That is exactly what Bill Madaras had in mind."
Mendez said the story of Pvt. Madaras made the donation about much more than just soccer balls.
"We've had ball donations before, but never with that kind of meaning behind it," said Mendez. "The fact they were donated for that cause makes this so special. It doesn't matter that we never met the soldier. We identify with the meaning and the cause. We know this is something very special."
After the balls were presented, several of the athletes gathered around Boccardi, asking to look at a photo of Pvt. Madaras Boccardi had shown while recounting his story.
"There is a sense of fulfillment from that," said Boccardi. "Nothing can ever replace Nick--nothing. But afterward, when they come up and are tugging on my shirt and wanting to see the picture of Nick, it means I get to pass on that lineage and that memory...and I realize it was a noble deed."
According to the organization's website, "Kick for Nick" has collected more than 39,600 balls from 47 states for donation to underprivileged children around the world.