Marine veteran Michael Ukaj was killed in a limo accident in Schoharie, NY, on Saturday, October 6, 2018, along with nineteen other people.

Marine veteran Michael Ukaj was killed in a limo accident in Schoharie, NY, on Saturday, October 6, 2018, along with nineteen other people. (Facebook)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Marine Corps veteran Michael Ukaj was a helper.

He was the person his childhood friend, Bradley Armstrong, could count on to be there for him, even when he didn’t ask for it, and even if they were in different cities or states.

When Ukaj’s brother, Jeremy Ashton, needed advice, he was the one to give it. He counseled Ashton about everything from breakups to whether he should argue with his landlord over a utility bill (he didn’t, on Ukaj’s guidance) and if he should join the Air Force or Marine Corps (he went with Marine Corps, also Ukaj’s suggestion).

“He was a straight-shooter, an honest man who was always there when you needed him,” Ashton said. “Any time I needed clear advice, I would go to him. He would always cut through the bull---t and help me objectively look at something.”

He added: “Moving forward in my life, there’s a void of someone I can trust.”

Ukaj, of Caroga Lake, N.Y., was one of 20 people who died Saturday in a limousine crash in upstate New York – an incident authorities are describing as the country’s deadliest transportation accident in nearly a decade.

The Associated Press reported the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine sped through a stop sign on a rural road 25 miles west of Albany and slammed into a parked SUV. Two pedestrians, the limo driver and its 17 passengers, including Ukaj, were killed.

Saturday was Ukaj’s birthday; he was 34.

“He was a great human being, and the definition of a good friend,” Armstrong said. “The world definitely lost a good one.”

Ukaj was Armstrong’s first friend.

The two grew up in the small community of Gloversville, N.Y. Their mothers were friends, and they played together from the time Armstrong was 2 and Ukaj was 3. Both enjoyed video games and shooting guns. They both joined the Marine Corps.

Armstrong remembers Ukaj talking often about being a Marine. When they were in high school, Ukaj wrote out the Marine Corps ranks on notecards and had Armstrong quiz him. He enlisted immediately after graduation.

“Mike was the kind of guy that once he put his mind to something, he did it,” Armstrong said.

Ukaj deployed once to Iraq, where he served as a combat engineer. On Monday, his mother, Mary Ashton, shared a photo on Facebook of Ukaj in his dress uniform.

“You were such an inspiration when you wanted to join the Marine Corps!” she wrote. “Thank you for your combat service, and for being my son. I love you forever.”

Armstrong joined the Marine Corps years later, after Ukaj was already out. Through moves and other life changes, they remained friends, Armstrong said.

When Armstrong settled back to New York, Ukaj would join him, his wife and son for most holidays. Sometimes they would get together at the lake house where Ukaj lived. When Armstrong’s second son was born, Ukaj showed up at the hospital with flowers.

“Anything you needed, he would drop it and come rushing to help you,” Armstrong said. “He would give you the shirt off his back. I know everyone says that, but he would. He was always there for us.”

After hearing of the limo crash Saturday, Armstrong, now living with his family in Florida, scoured social media to see whether he knew any of the people killed. He didn't see mention of Ukaj.

“Our hometown isn’t that big of an area. I looked through the names and pictures, and none of them looked familiar,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong's mother called him Sunday and informed him Ukaj had been in the limo.

Ukaj was friends with some of the passengers, and they were all on the way to a brewery to celebrate a 30th birthday. Among those killed were four sisters.

State and federal authorities were still investigating the crash Tuesday. The AP reported that the driver didn’t have the necessary commercial license, and the vehicle failed a state inspection. The owner, Prestige Limousine, took its vehicles off the road as it conducted its own investigation.

Ukaj’s parents live in Maine and were rushing Tuesday evening to get to New York and make funeral arrangements. A family friend started a fundraising page on Facebook to help cover the expenses. As of Tuesday evening, 92 people had contributed more than $4,000.

“Michael was a generous, caring young man, filled with energy and ambition,” the page says. “He will be missed deeply by all who knew him.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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