01/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Sister Soldier: A Chronicle of Life After Iraq" - Part I


As I travel down a new path, one with the Army, and one with Cancer; at the fork where they both meet, is my sister Fran -- pictured above-- a Captain Chaplain, who as the military calls her, an OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom).

In March 2006, I journied to the nations capitol to see her at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Now, you don't just walk into the Washington, DC landmark hospital. You are stopped at the 25 foot high black iron gates that surround the 5,500 room, 28 acre size building on Georgia Avenue. Before you are permitted onto the military medical compound, two armed guards request your drivers license. Within thirty feet you're stopped by another team of armed soldiers asked a series of questions, your ID is requested again and then you are given a parking permit good for the day.

Only after you pass their inspection are you allowed to enter the state-of-the-art military medical facility that has cared for, healed, operated on or sent those home to die since 1909. You'll find groups of military men dressed in camouflage walking shoulder to shoulder through the halls. Doing business or visiting injured or ill soldiers. You can sense their apparent camaraderie as a band of brothers exudes with their every step. Most of the doctors and nurses are also dressed in military garb, and surprisingly are friendly, kind and informative....not expected when dealing with a government facility.

Walter Reed has treated all ranks, from Ensigns to Colonels, Lieutenants to Majors, Sergeants, Generals and Captains.

That March, Fran -- a 40 year-old Army Captain-Chaplain -- laid in the Oncology Ward 65. Her mind was stuck on her 14 years as a Chaplain. Within weeks her body felt like, as she described, "an octopus inside of me wrapping its tentacles around every organ." This was a rare Stage IV Dysgerminoma Cancer.

* * *

This was the only time in three years she regretted leaving the Navy to join the Army. Within one year after she was assigned to the 526th Battalion of the 101st Airborne at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, did she get her orders to deploy to Iraq on March 8, 2003. She reluctantly agreed to take the series of five mandatory shots of the Anthrax vaccine.... now regretting that too.

Twenty-four hours later she landed in Kuwait and settled with many other soldiers in Camp New York until orders came to relocate. Within weeks she traveled with her battalion in a military caravan across the desert through Baghdad and onto Mosul, where she pitched her last tent and lived for a year.

The bombing and fear had infiltrated her being, resulting in months of psychological adjustment when she returned. She spent the first 30 days on base at her apartment in Tennessee where the bombs still echoed in her mind. The fear of attack and jarring explosions had stayed with her. And for months she slept with the sheets pulled up over her head, just as she did in Iraq to keep the sand off while sleeping. Her fear of crowded places kept her hiding at home until the post-traumatic stress lifted. Before she could begin building her life back together again, she was reassigned to Stuttgart, Germany for three years.

To mark her nights in Iraq, she'll wear forever on her arm, the black eagle patch from the 101st Airborne. And with memories of the 526 in tow, she set off to start a new journey as Major. In January 2006 she was selected for promotion to a rank she's worked hard for, a rank few women hold, and a rank that will disappear when she's around the hierarchy of her siblings.

Fran immediately thought her term in Iraq was the culprit for the Cancer. At the beginning of January it spontaneously appeared. She first began feeling tired, bloated, and had an unusual feeling of fullness. "It's feels like I ate a Thanksgiving dinner after drinking a cup of coffee," she murmured to me. Then fever and lower back pain developed as did a sense of blockage in her colon. She was baffled. Just six months prior she passed her physical in top shape. Only a carcinogen could take over the body in such a rapid fashion without any warning signs.

The symptoms gathered momentum and within four weeks sent her to the doctors in Germany. They assumed she had a blockage in her colon and prescribed her colon cleanses. After an ineffective treatment she returned to them with complaints and they ordered an MRI, diagnosing a large tumor in her abdomen.

It wasn't until the doctors in Germany said they were sending her medevac
to Walter Reed on Sunday March 12th did she begin to believe the sudden onset was a result of a combination of things in Iraq. Between the Anthrax vaccine, the depleted Uranium recently discovered in our bombs, and the water she bathed with, washed her clothes in, and ate food cooked with for a year, was supposed to be filtered by a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root an engineering firm who was contracted to do so, but did not. Up until March 2005 the soldiers were exposed to contaminants, bacteria and viruses through the dirty water. The apparent carelessness with something so simple as filtering the water for the American Troops has added to soldiers returning with an impaired immune system; MRSA positive, a bacteria immune to most antibiotics, and a percentage with Cancer. Those most susceptible to MRSA have a weakened immune system from either wounds, illness or surgery. It is known to spread rapidly causing multiple organ failure.

The final blow came when the doctors in Germany E-mailed her her records to take to Walter Reed, upon reading them did she discover she had Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. She telephoned me from Germany. Whaling the results into my ear, I could only weep, "I'm sorry honey, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Fran cried out, "I'm only 40 years-old, I am too young to meet my maker. I'll be 41 on Wednesday. I need more memories. I don't have enough yet," she bawled in horror. Ironically, it was almost three years ago to the day since she was deployed to Iraq.

How could a young woman who had held the hands of wounded soldiers, comforted the spouses of soldiers killed in a cross fire, cradled babies dying of Leukemia and give the last rights to those in their final herself on the other side of the bed? And be at war with the Cancer raging within. As I asked myself, Why Her? A voice repeated, "Why Not Her?" She asked herself, 'Why Me?' And then thought, 'Why Not Me?' We both had unknowingly heard the same answer.

Fran became weaker and dehydrated and wasn't able to make the March 12th flight, so they admitted her to a German hospital for a two day rest and hydration. Then the day before her birthday on Tuesday 14th , the medevac originating in Germany laden with 30 plus soldiers from Iraq, all in need of medical attention in the US, headed for DC and Andrews Airforce Base. Fran said when they were carrying her across the tarmac to the plane, she heard blaring from the cockpit the Rolling Stones song, Beast of Burden. The tears began to slide down the sides of her temples as she knew she was finally going home to see her family, but she didn't expect like this. The song she said reminded her of me as I used to sing it when I was younger. Fran added, "You know I love music and I have always had a special song for each of you in the family." A different sister was emerging infront of me, one who no longer kept the family at arms length, one who shared her secrets, her joys, her pains. The Cancer was unveiling her Soul, the sorrow was opening her heart.

A week later when I first saw her, she was 20 pounds lighter, her chin was sagging like our mothers once did, I could see in her profile our other sister who died at 29 from AIDS, and her frail, sunken frame reminded me of our late grandmother. How was it I was seeing three generations of women in her? And how did her loud cackle be reduced to a whisper since our last phone call one month earlier? I found it unusual, but as the days unfolded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, it was far from unusual; for soldiers of all ages were being brought back daily from Iraq with rare forms of Cancer of the colon, lungs, testes and blood. This wasn't in her DNA, she was exposed to something very toxic, a carcinogen, something in the water, something in the vaccine, something in the munitions, something in the food, something in the soil, something in Iraq.

On St. Patrick's Day she was scheduled for a biopsy, but while in the OR the tumor began to bleed. So they opened up her abdomen only to remove a tumor the size of a Volleyball, her left ovary and appendix. What they had to leave behind -- were three tumors, one wrapped around her colon, her Aorta artery, and another around her kidney. Because of the precarious placement of the tumor on her Aorta artery, they feared a removal could result in a rupture to the valve and cause a major bleed. At the time they suspected Ovarian Cancer or Lymphoma, but after the lab results they confirmed Dysgerminoma, called the Germ Cancer typically seen in young girls not in a woman of her age. The doctors were baffled as to the type since she didn't fit the profile. They asked her if she was pregnant because her hormones were elevated and she retorted, "No, not unless it's an immaculate conception."

With five days post-surgery surgery and 27 staples in her belly, she was discharged from Walter Reed, to me. We stayed in Maryland at the Walter Reed Fisher House, another military compound for families and soldiers who are ill, or have lost limbs in the war on Iraq who are still undergoing treatments or are in recovery. There I met nearly a dozen soldiers with Cancer who had either been medevac from Iraq, or had recently returned from there and were now experiencing a backlash.

In hopes to melt away the remaining Cancer, on April 3rd Fran's Chemo would begin for an aggressive series of three cycles, 15 rounds. The doctors wanted to wait two weeks for her to recover from the surgery before the Chemo commenced, since it would make matters worse if she isn't healed. They fear possible infection of her incision since her immune system will be impaired by the Chemo.

The doctor's project she'll be in treatment and recovery for four to five months, and at that time her Oncologist will take another CT scan and if it's still present, he'll attempt another surgery to remove the tumor from the Aorta. That's if she doesn't end up contracting AIDS from the blood transfusion, for they gave her a disclaimer the blood administered during surgery could have been tainted with the HIV virus. Since they can't be 100 percent sure, she needs to be aware. I was ignorant to think the blood banks had a handle on contaminated blood.

This ordeal has made her weak, tired and trying to get her to eat more than tablespoons of food a few times a day became a challenge the first two weeks. Her breathing is challenged, and we're not sure if it has something to do with the pneumonia that lingered in lower lobe of her lung, or the Cancer. Trying to get Fran out of bed and walk puts a strain on her lower back where the tumor is. She says she can feel the three inside wrapped around her organs, coupled with looking at the twelve inch scar racing down her belly -- she doesn't recognize her own body any more. "Lately, I've been seeing sparkles when I close my eyes. They were white at first now they're purple and all these different colors. I think I am seeing the Cancer cells," she murmured.

She wanted to reach out and contact her Lieutenant, Major and Colonel in the 526th Battalion at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, her 101st Airborne family. So I e-mailed her former Lieutenant Colonel and within hours the E-mails started pouring in. All the love and support she gave to her men and women on the battlefield began to link together memories and a life of accomplishments and influences that she was unaware of. They've banded around her, in an attempt to shield her from the pain and suffering of the battle of life marked by Cancer. And during the course of the correspondence from across the states and over into Iraq and Afghanistan, she's come to discover others have recently had bouts of Cancer some malignant, some benign. The pieces to the puzzle fit sharply into place as the truth about what the soldiers are being exposed to in Iraq, begins to emerge wearing a mask of Cancer, illness and disease, the unspoken casualties of the war in Iraq.

I read the E-mails to her and their well wishes and prayers transport her out of the moment for just a fraction, suspending her current reality and bringing her joy. Their reminiscing produced a soft, drawn out "Ooh" from her lips, as their thoughts and kind words help to sweeten the blow... as doubts begin to surface that she hasn't done enough with her life yet, to make a difference.

When her doctor removed the staples from her stomach, it left a scar she'll never forget and will fear to remember. "I have never been in the hospital before and have no scars on my body, now I have this one," Fran grieved.

They're not sure how much the other three tumors had grown in those two weeks, and it was imperative the Chemo begin, for the doctors felt it's futile to wait a moment more.

Spending most of her time laying in bed on her back unable to lay on her side because doing so adds pressure to her organs. She'd glance across the room at me and say, "I wish I could lay on my side. You are so lucky." I thought, 'I've never had someone envy me before for sleeping on my side.'

As the baby in the family we hope she has the fight in her to beat this....and a few days before I left DC I saw a glimpse of hope when she threw a half a gallon water jug at me across the room for trying to take a her picture and late one night got up and kicked my bed because I was snoring too loud. It was a good sign that maybe her feisty nature is reemerging. In January Fran remembered, " I began seeing this white, short haired kitty with piercing green eyes sit on my belly. Its paws stretched out grabbing lightly at my chest. I'd stroke it with both hands and it would purr. It makes me feel good when I see it," she whispered. She's always loved cats -- I told her it's a guardian angel.

In the last days of March after I had left, the day before she was scheduled to have her port placed under the skin of her upper chest, (a Chemo station for continual easy I.V. access) she told my brother, "If something happens to me while I am in the O.R. I don't want to be revived, just let me go," she delicately pleaded. It is the wake up call I encounter every day. Will I be able to let her go? I weep silently in my strength.

With Chemo they claim a 90 percent cure rate....but of stage IV who's certain? The family rotation continued for nine months and 35 rounds of Chemo. During that period she found solace while visiting the waters of Montauk. Casting her eyes to the Atlantic, as I have, when thinking of her while standing upon the rocks at sunset, where the sea meets the sky, she saw, what the soul looks like.

Her Colonel informed her when she recovers she'll be reassigned to the DC area, but as with the WRAMC red tape, after two years and in remission, she's still awaiting her Med Boards. So she waits, goes to follow-up appointments to make sure the Cancer doesn't return, but ultimately the outcome isn't in the doctors hands, nor ours her family, or even hers... for her will, her breath of life, rests in the Divine path she's always followed and served, for he who giveth can takith away, Gods.