In 2008, Mareike Seekatz lived in Hamburg, Germany, working as an event planner for a local concert & activity venue. Her social media profiles described her college background in tourism management, and it was because of this that she received a message from an American soldier that November. Specialist Troy Yocum was an Army infantryman en route to Germany for several days of leave before his next duty assignment, and was searching for a tour guide to show him and and one of his battle buddies around the country before they moved on. After a few months of back and forth conversation, Troy and Thomas landed in Hamburg in February of 2009. Mareike met them at the airport and took them to a bed and breakfast near to where she lived. They spent the next 12 days together while exploring several cities in Germany.
At the end of their R&R, Troy and Thomas flew back to Iraq, but Troy and Mareike stayed in touch throughout the rest of his combat deployment in Iraq. Over the next several months they started to develop a closer relationship, and Mareike flew to the U.S. to see him after he returned from his deployment in August.
Mareike recalls immediately falling in love with the U.S. during her first visit, which lasted for three weeks. “Kentucky was absolutely gorgeous and as a horse lover I felt this might be a place I could imagine living someday.”
In November of 2009, after the couple had been dating for about nine months, Troy flew back to Germany to visit Mareike and her family over Christmas and New Years. The Hike for Heroes (Troy’s plan to walk across America and back to raise awareness for Veteran suicide rates) had been in the planning stages for about six months by this time, and Mareike knew she wouldn’t be in much of a position to support the Hike, since their plans involved her flying to the U.S. to join him on the walk only every six months or so.
A few weeks before the Hike started, Mareike was again visiting Troy in the U.S. Her plans to return to Germany got sidetracked after a volcano erupted in Iceland, canceling all flights from the U.S. to Europe for the next four days. As a result, Mareike was stuck in America for the next three and a half weeks, so she spent that time starting the Hike with Troy in April of 2010. Only a week into the Hike, Mareike and Troy found themselves at the Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, and it was there that Troy proposed to Mareike! They were married just eight days later, and Mareike went on to complete the Hike for Heroes with Troy by walking over 4,500 miles across America. In December of 2010 Mareike received her Green Card, marking her as a “conditional” permanent resident of the United States.
The Hike finished its course in September of 2011, but Troy and Mareike knew that they wanted to continue their mission of helping U.S. Military Veterans in need. With help from friends and supporters, Active Heroes was established as a non-profit corporation on December 28, 2011, and Mareike became the Vice President of an American Veterans’ support charity. “The first year was the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced. The first office we had was an RV trailer at the KOA Campground in Shepherdsville, we were there for our first ten months. After that we moved into an 800 square foot house in Louisville. We didn’t add another staff member until May 2014. We had great support from our volunteers, and we had our board of directors, but Troy and I were the only actual staff members of Active Heroes for the first two and a half years.”
In addition to the challenges they were faced with in building a non-profit organization from the ground up, Mareike continued to pursue her goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. The next step was the removal of conditions from her Green Card to make her status as a permanent resident of the United States unconditional according to U.S. Code. Mareike achieved this goal in 2012. In 2014, Mareike started working towards her final goal of becoming a U.S. citizen. “The exam was the hard part, I always get anxious about taking tests,” she recalled with a smile. She passed her citizenship exam on January 6, 2015, and was officially sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America on January 30th. Her husband Troy, several Active Heroes staff members, and several board members were present at the ceremony to watch as she swore the United States Oath of Allegiance.
While it would have been possible to maintain dual status as a citizen of both America and Germany, it would have been a much more complicated process, and ultimately Mareike made the decision to relinquish her German citizenship. “My life, my job, my family, and my friends are all here, and this is where I belong.”
Mareike has dedicated her life’s work to helping American military Veterans in need, simultaneously overcoming obstacles to become a citizen of a country she wasn’t born in. Active Heroes wouldn’t be the organization it is today without her contributions, vision, and guidance. We congratulate her on her accomplishments and look forward to the things we will accomplish together in 2015 and the future!