Predeployment “Desert Storm” and My “Force Field”

Welcome back to my blog! Just some thoughts as I get on with life as I tackle Neuroendocrine cancer, and prepare for this year’s London Marathon. I’m establishing some solid habits in my training (mental and physical), and part of the mental side is to write.

It is only 58 days until the London Marathon, and the training is going well. It was a bit of a slow week, as my body was telling me to take a break for a little recovery. I’d been training pretty hard, and my body and mind were a bit tired.

To continue on with my “Desert Storm” experience 25 years ago, this blog covers the time of selection through our pre-deployment in Florida. It amazes me as I wrote this blog entry how much going to war parallels dealing with cancer. I wish I had written this story years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have been ready to see it really.

Here is the next part of the story.

Once selected for the deployment, it started a whirlwind of training, administrative tasks, and the hardest parts of notifications and then saying the good-byes.

The similarities of telling your loved ones are so similar between deployments and dealing with a serious disease. There are uncertainties and tears. It is pretty scary really. If I can take a moment to thank It was a tip from a friend, and it saved our sanity in the early days. Thankfully, I haven’t had to update it for quite a while, but it is comforting to know that things like this exist to help.

Ok, my “war” story’s next phase was the preparation.

Chemical warfare “gas mask” training is normally held over a couple days. A special training session was set up for me, and it only lasted 2 hours. They threw all the different scenarios and appropriate “MOP 1,2,3,4 levels” at me, and I can remember thinking, “Are they kidding me?”. I managed to remember: how you clear your mask, don’t use your gas mask bag as a pillow or the Atropine auto-injector pen would go off against my skull and kill me, and if you see someone rolling around on the ground you better put your mask on before you help them or the last words you may hear would be “thanks”.

They seemed to throw so much at me, but I think it was so much harder because of all the mental chatter I had rolling around in my head. I’ve had these feeling loads of times with different cancer treatments. I wish I had been prepared for this overwhelming rush of too much information.   I think this could be a good example for anyone right after cancer diagnosis.   The definitions of types of cancer, carcinoid syndrome, neuroendocrine, differentiated, well-differentiated, metastatic, the different “stages”, survival rates, progression free survival, clinical trials, chemo, treatment options, and the history and statistics hit like an information fire hose.

Weapons training went just as quick and pointless really. “Here is how you tear down, clean, and reassemble a M16, 9mm, grenade launcher” – over in about 30 minutes.   I’d qualified as a “marksman” in basic training, and had my own guns. But looking back, I probably should have raised my hand with loads of questions. The range was closed, so no practice.   I was kicking myself for letting this happen, and let this distract me from issues I could control.

On the cancer side; figuring out the documentation maze seemed overwhelming. Insurance paperwork, disability paperwork, social security, and how to find the right team and treatment were literally more stress than I’d ever known. For me, I know I’ve lost a lot more nights sleep worrying about paperwork than the actual disease. That’s just not right is it?

I’m starting to remember what a moron I was back then, and I sincerely hope this doesn’t offend any morons. I’m also getting a surprising feel on how close this experience was to my cancer journey. I’ve never really thought about it this deeply before, but looking back it is amazing to me how this experience prepared me for the biggest battle of my life.

I’d convinced myself that goodbyes weren’t going to be that hard. Nothing was going to happen to me. This was all being played out on CNN and Americans didn’t get hurt. I was so naive. I am finding though, this can be a good thing when you are dealing with cancer. I think it is very important to feel invincible.

Nothing really hit me until my parents pulled out of our driveway to head back to Iowa after a short visit, and that was tough. But, it was when I had to tell my pregnant wife and 10-month-old daughter good-bye as I walked through the gate at the airport that it really hit me. I really didn’t know when I would be back. It is kind of like the moment right before you go in for surgery, but there was no shot to knock you out.

It was dark as I walked off the plane in Tampa; I remember vividly how the warmth and humidity took my breath away. Coming from an Omaha winter I could instantly understand why people left the Midwest for the Florida.

I first met the team I would deploy with as I checked into the hotel. Captain Mark Meaders (USAF) was from the program office (Pentagon), Sergeant First Class (SFC) Gary B (US Army) from the Whitehouse Communications Agency, and Air Force Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Jerry Hibberd from Engineering and Installation and I (Staff Sergeant Z) would meet Senior Airman (SrA) Ryan Bradshaw from HQ TAC at Langley AFB later (that’s a separate story to be shared only in a bar over beers).   We bonded quickly over a meal and a lot of drinks.

Capt Meaders was the expert with dealing with the program offices and CENTCOM leadership. SFC “B” was the expert in dealing with the factory engineers and had supported senior “National” leadership before (he was the Ace). TSgt Hibberd was an expert scrounger, and could get anything. SrA Bradshaw and me (SSgt “Z”) were the grunts, and we were labor and just knowledgeable enough do the day-to-day maintenance while not screwing anything up, and if this deployment went long haul we could be left to keep things running for at least six months.

I can pick out the same players and their roles several times over in all the different departments I deal with in several hospitals I’ve used. Finding the right team in dealing with cancer is crucial! You have to trust them. I’ve been fortunate to have some of the best in the world on my team. I only say “some of the best” to not offend any of the other cancer teams, but I really believe mine are the best. You have to believe!

We spent the next several days configuring the equipment borrowed from “Whitehouse Com”. We watched the news each night, and were updated by CENTCOM channels on the Air War, and later the ground war. It seemed to be a lot of information, and included a lot of speculation and waiting. Just like the “wait and see” game of blood tests, scan results, and the “what if” game of thinking of the scenarios. Waiting sucks!

While we waited, the air war had started and was a couple weeks in, and right before we left saw the start of ground operations. This was no bluffing game.

The last weekend before we left for came and we were ready. Our equipment was configured, bags were packed and all that was left was to wait a couple more days for our turn on the military transport schedule. I was allowed to go visit my Grandparents in Dade City, Florida just about 30 miles east. They were living in a mobile home park with several “snow bird” families from my hometown region in Iowa.

This generation came from a different era of war. My great uncle had been a prisoner of war in WWII, and was also at the park. Several of the men there had been to war. But, it wasn’t really talked about. It was the elephant in the park, and nobody really spoke of it. Ok, I’m getting a bit repetitive here, but this is just like the elephant called “cancer” that seems to be right over my left shoulder most of the time.   The veterans in the park seemed to give me a little nod and a quiet word that seemed to say, “you’ll be alright”. Some didn’t say anything. I now understand that talking about elephants can be hard.

I’d never been to visit my grandparents in Florida before, but had heard so much about it that I felt like I had. It felt like Iowa in that little community. They even had a version of the Nashua Iowa’s “Little Brown Church” called the “Little White Church” of the South, and their reverend was a woman named Dr. Rose.

My grandpa was a pretty quiet man, but he really wanted me to meet Dr. Rose. I’d never seen him quite so animated at making something happen before. He had a tremendous amount of respect for her.   I don’t consider myself a very religious man, but I do try to live to Christian values. I’ve never been a very big churchgoer, but there would be no point in trying to excuse myself this time; my grandpa was taking me to church that Sunday. Saying “no thanks” was not an option.

I was spending the church time quietly thinking about the deployment, and wasn’t really paying attention as Dr. Rose, the choir and congregation worked their way through the program.   Then they went through their prayer list (it was about 30 minutes long), finishing with the servicemen in the “Persian Gulf”, and then I was called up in front of the congregation.

“WHOA! What? Why? No Thank You!” was on loop in my head. But, my grandpa smiled and pushed me up. I felt like a little boy. “Who was this man? There was no way he would have been pushed up there”.

Ok, I was obviously not in control, and there was no point in resisting. He was doing this on his own. Don’t make him have to get Grandma involved. I’d just go up front, and they would introduce me and then I would sit down right? I calmed myself and went up.

“Lord, please put a force field around this young man”, was the introduction from Dr. Rose. (My grandpa smiled even more!) “What? Oh my! Seriously? Was this some kind of cult? I’m not worthy of this!” was the new loop in my head.

This was one of the most surreal moments of my life. A “force field” sounded a lot more direct than any prayer request I’d ever heard.   To say I was uncomfortable was a bit of an understatement. I’m uncomfortable typing this part of my story.

On the lighter side; I’m pretty sure this “force field” hasn’t hurt. For years I never seemed to get caught in the rain or a storm unless I spoke of the “force field”. Go ahead and snicker; but seriously….very rarely do I get caught in rain. It has happened too many times in the last 25 years for me to think it was just a coincidence. I’ve definitely enjoyed recalling the story quite a few times.

If there is one thing I can say in a positive light about cancer, it is that it has generated surreal events at a rate I could never have imagined. Prayer, meditation, positive attitude, “signs” and visualization are probably just as important as common sense, medicines, treatments, exercise and diet. Examples happen all the time. I’ve got loads of examples, and I’m struggling to narrow it down to a couple quick stories for this blog.

One example happened over Thanksgiving 2011. We were invited over to our friends for Thanksgiving dinner, and there would be several friends and a senior “healer” from their Church. It is a well-known church in the area, and a bit controversial and hard core Christian for both England’s conservative standards and mine.

I thought it was a bit weird that when I was introduced to anyone from their church that they would touch me while they talked to me. Either on the arm or shoulder or would hold my handshake for an extra few moments. It was weird but it wasn’t awkward.

I had just had a round of Y-90 targeted radiation therapy a couple of weeks before. I was safe to be around, but I was supposed to sleep on my own for another week or so to limit the exposure of radiation to my wife. Anyway, as I awoke alone in the morning it was really quiet when I felt like I was being touched with a warm washcloth on the back of my right shoulder.

I mentioned this to my friend (her name is “Faith” by the way – I know right?) over coffee a few days later, and she got very excited.   She then explained to me that her friends were all trained healers, and they had laid their hands on me and prayed for me. She knew I would never have agreed to have a healing session. So, this was her plan. She you can imagine how she took my “washcloth” feeling as a sign it was working, and I can’t really argue with that!   (BTW, I didn’t even know at the time that I had bone metastasis in my right scapula.)

More recently; I was on a training run along the river on Sunday, and I was thinking of all the friends I’ve lost to cancer. I was wondering if I could come up with a list of 26 to run a mile for during the marathon. (The number is pretty close). I was also trying to decide if my light-hearted blog version of my Desert Storm story was disrespectful to them and those servicemen who paid the highest sacrifice during Desert Storm and all the wars in the Middle East since. I sure hope it doesn’t disrespect them; they have my highest respect and gratitude.

I was also wondering what was the point of all the physical and mental training, the healthy diet, the treatments, and writing. These friends are no longer with us, and how would anyone ever know they had been here. I was getting a bit down really, and then I noticed ripples on the water from a breeze come directly toward me.

This breeze was a bit different. I was like a breath. That is when it hit me, and I realized their effects were just like the wind. We can’t see them, but we can see their effect in their families and friends left behind. I was reengaged!

As if this wasn’t surreal enough that I noticed something that may have been a message. Later that night (completely unexpected) I received two separate messages from daughters of two different friends of mine who have recently passed away. One thanking me for supporting her mother as she dealt with cancer, and the other asking for my advice on a topic she would normally have asked of her Dad who passed away a year ago.

A “force field” seems a bit dramatic of a name to call the summary of all this stuff? But, it is a pretty good title, and I’m pretty sure it is still there! At the very least, I know it is kind of cool to believe it is anyway. You have to believe in something!

Thanks for stopping and reading.



















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