Zachary Ludwig, age 35, died December 31, 2023.
He had survived enlistment, deployment, mental health struggles and more, facing them down with a sunshiny, determined attitude. But he did not survive an encounter with a gunman at the Port of the Islands resort New Year’s Eve.
The immediate reaction was shock, devastation. A memorial was set up for him at the hotel. Friends and neighbors lined the streets of their small neighborhood with American flags, in honor of his life and his service. Friends, strangers, sent his parents heartfelt, supportive notes, telling them just how much even a small encounter with Ludwig meant to them.
Ludwig was a decorated Marine assaultman who served from 2007 to 2011; he was awarded a number of service ribbons and medals for his conduct and the missions on which he served.
But family and friends also say he was a special person: a charismatic, intelligent, kind man with a great sense of humor, a zeal for life. A man who woke up every day with his emotional support dog, Sammy’s, hair in his beard. Who sung and wrote songs constantly. Who spoke on the phone with his best friend every day – often multiple times a day.
“He had a natural knack of putting a silver lining on anything that had you down,” said Ret. Master Sgt. Maj. Michael Carter, who works for the Marines in the Wounded Warrior Regiment in the southeast states, assisting veterans struggling with re-entry. Carter initially connected with Ludwig through his work, but says they later became friends.
“He was so caring,” said his mother, who goes by Tammy. “The guy had such a kind heart. He was so present and in the moment, always sharing and caring about other people.”
The memory made his father, Mike, laugh.
“You got to understand you’re talking about a Marine now, right? He had just come back … he probably was socializing a little too much. So, what he thought he’d do was scale the wall.”
“But he forgot there were cameras,” Tammy chimed in, smiling.
“The next morning, I go out to the side of the house, and I see the trash cans on the (ground) and I’m like, what the heck?” Mike said. “So immediately I go to the cameras, and I see what he was doing. Yeah, first he denied it. And then I showed him (the video).”
Mike and Tammy chuckled. “I think he forgot he wasn’t in Afghanistan,” she said.
Upon leaving the Marines, Ludwig struggled with PTSD, said Dale Mullin, founder and president of Naples-based 501(c)3 nonprofit Warrior Homes, where Ludwig lived for roughly a year. Warrior Homes is set up to provide housing to veterans enrolled in Veteran’s Treatment Court. Often, Mullin said, these veterans can withdraw from the world, and fall into anger or substance abuse issues, due to the nature of their injury, and they need specialized treatment.
Upon graduation from Veteran’s Treatment Court in 2021, Mullin said, Ludwig called him out of the blue and left him a voicemail thanking him for his help, and for everything the program did for him.
“I have the utmost respect and appreciation for everything you and your organization do,” Ludwig said in the voicemail.
Mullin was so touched he shared Ludwig’s message with other staff, and even saved it for three years. Ludwig’s death hit particularly hard, he said, as Ludwig had worked so long and been so successful at turning his life around – graduating from treatment, moving out and finding a job he was happy at.
He was back out in the world.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mullin said.
Despite leaving the military, Ludwig continued to work on government projects. He worked on AUKUS, the first security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and even assisted in the production process of specialized combatant marine craft for the Department of Defense, completing the paint, body work and final assembly. The U.S.
Marine Corps was the first to purchase them.
At the time of his death, Ludwig was working on his bachelor’s in cyber security from the University of Arizona. Ludwig was thriving at Port of the Islands, his father said, both the hotel and the community where all three now lived. He particularly loved how his job gave him the opportunity to interact with the public, and introduce tourists to a place he loved so much.
He also continued to sing and write songs every chance he got, his mother said.
“He wrote and journaled every day,” Tammy said. “Every time he had a line he wanted to remember, he’d write it down and he’d save it … for the chance to put it in a song.”
When she listened to the lyrics, she could tell Ludwig was talking about his own life, she said. She kept a number of his songs on her phone so she could listen to them, over and over again.
“I’d tell him how beautiful it was,” she said. “Zach always spoke the truth.”
On what would be Ludwig’s last day alive, he stopped in at his parents’ home on his way to work to say hello.
“I put my hands on his face, because he’s so handsome, and I gave him a kiss,” Tammy said, her voice thickening. “And I said, ‘Zack, I love you. You look so handsome. And you smell so good.’ And he gave me that smile. He said, ‘I love you, Mom, you have a great day.’
“That was the last I had my hands on him.”
Tammy began to cry.
Ludwig found Mike in his office before he left and they hugged, and exchanged I-love-yous. Mike told his son he was proud of him one last time.
They were all were happy that day, Mike said. Nothing was left unsaid.
Later that afternoon, when Tammy heard there had been a shooting, she texted her son and asked if he was all right.
He did not reply.
While some details of his killing have not been released due to the Collier County Sheriff’s ongoing investigation, one thing is known to those close to him, Carter said: Ludwig ran towards the gunfire, not away. And his actions likely saved lives.
Friends and family said Ludwig always tackled things head-on, calling him a “true Marine” who exemplified the service branch’s motto, “Semper Fidelis,” which translates to always faithful.
“He went out a hero,” Carter said. ”Zach prevented further bloodshed. His actions saved an unknown number of people.”
“I can only tell you, as a father, that our son was a Marine,” Mike said. “Marines lead from the front. And they don’t run from gunfire, they run towards it. “He gave everybody else a chance to evacuate,” Mike said. “In our hearts, he’ll always be a hero.”
On Friday, Jan. 5, Ludwig’s parents held a private viewing and memorial so that close friends and family could say goodbye. His best friend went early, to make sure Ludwig’s body was suitable for viewing. Friends, family, neighbors showed up. His parents brought his dog, Sammy.
Before they left him, before funeral home workers would close the casket one final time, his parents brought Sammy up to the casket and let him give Ludwig a kiss goodbye.
His father ran his hands through Sammy’s fur, and sprinkled some of it in Ludwig’s beard.
“That’s how he sleeps,” said Mike. “That’s what he wanted.”
“That’s what he wanted,” echoed Tammy.
Box 10434, Naples, FL 34101.
Kate Cimini is the Florida Investigative Reporter for the USA TODAYNetwork Florida, based at The News-Press and The Naples Daily News.
Contact her at 239-207-9369 or email@example.com.