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Eric Marts, a former master sargeant in the U.S. Army, with his guide dog, Deacon, in a 2012 photo. David Samson / The Forum

Retired Guard member to attend State of the Union as Heitkamp’s guest

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FARGO – When retired Army National Guard member Eric Marts told North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp at a town hall meeting last fall that he was willing to help her in any way he could with issues facing today’s veterans, he never figured it would lead to the opportunity of a lifetime.

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Heitkamp has chosen Marts, a blind former master sergeant from Moorhead, Minn., to accompany her to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

“Each year, I ask someone special, someone who represents the very best from our communities, to be my guest at the State of the Union,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “Eric’s story is about a man who is selflessly committed to serving our country, who has sacrificed much and overcame great obstacles. Eric continues to serve and has made it his life’s mission to make life better for those who sacrifice so much for us.”

Marts, 52, first met Heitkamp when she hosted a roundtable discussion with veterans at the American Legion in Fargo. Marts said he wasn’t shy about letting her know the issues today’s local veterans face, including some antiquated regulations.

Some rules date back to World War II and have made it difficult for today’s veterans to receive the assistance they need, Marts said.

Heitkamp has also been a guest on Marts’ radio show, “Heroes of the Heartland,” which airs on WDAY 970 Saturday mornings. Still, he never expected to get the call like the one he did last week asking if he was willing to travel to the nation’s capital.

“I was happy to accept,” Marts said. “Not very many people get a chance to do something like that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Marts will spend a week in Washington and has asked his older brother, Steve, to accompany him.

“Part of my job is to describe everything to him and collect information that he can file away later,” Steve Marts said. “He's just doing this awesome job, and I'm privileged to have been asked to go with him.”

While the State of the Union address may be the main event, the brothers’ schedule is quickly filling up. Eric Marts plans to visit the Pentagon and has plans to meet a favorite author. He has also been contacted by the heads of Wounded Warrior, a nonprofit that helps wounded soldiers.

But Marts is especially excited to run his hands over the engraved Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“It’s just like brail, I can run my fingers across the names of fallen heroes,” Marts said. “I’ve interviewed so many Vietnam vets, and they have been so welcoming to the new veterans returning home.”

And as someone who knows all too well the life of an injured soldier, Marts said it is important to him to visit with patients at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“I’ve been in hospitals like that and know what it’s like to be sitting there,” Marts said. “If I can give assistance or give encouragement to them, I want to try and do that. Let them know you can still be productive. Your life isn’t over, you’re just starting another chapter.”

Marts’ vision started deteriorating in 2006 after a blast went off under a vehicle he was riding in. He was serving in heavy combat areas of Iraq with Company B of the Minnesota National Guard’s 2/136th Infantry Combat Arms Battalion, part of the 34th Infantry Division.

Although he was losing his vision, Marts convinced superiors he was still vital to the mission and stayed in combat until July 2007.

“After Eric went blind, he basically sees more than ever,” Steve Marts said. “He is just really active in working with the veterans. Some of the rules are really antiquated and not relevant to our current veterans, and he's really working to bring that to light. Our whole family is really proud of the good work he is doing, a lot of selfless actions.”

In June, Marts and his son, Seth, were a part of Operation Night Vision, which took the pair on an adventure-packed trip to Alabama.

Heitkamp invited Adrienne Linde of Devils Lake to the president’s State of the Union in 2013. Linde is the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Darren M. Linde, who was killed while serving with the North Dakota National Guard 818th Engineer Company on Dec. 3, 2012.

The brothers left for Washington on Sunday and will return Saturday.

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Wendy Reuer
Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and and at CBS Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 
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