Face of Defense: Soldier Counts Being Alive, in Uniform Among Blessings
By Jason L. Austin
Special to American Forces Press Service
HEIDELBERG, Germany, Sept. 19, 2008 Though he’s never regretted joining the Army, a soldier here said, his decision never felt more right than when he faced the greatest challenge of his life: battling cancer.
It’s been almost nine years since Army doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor growing in Sgt. 1st Class James Jordan’s chest. He was 33 then and stationed in South Korea. Today, Jordan has survived two bouts with cancer and is planning a long career before retiring from the Army.
"I love the Army," said Jordan, a senior paralegal for the Europe Regional Medical Command judge advocate general office here.
Jordan arrived at his duty station in July, glad to have another shot at a tour in Germany; a previous tour here was cut short by cancer treatments. Mostly, though, Jordan said, he is just thankful to still wear the uniform.
"I praise God for that," he said. He has 16 years of active-duty service as a paralegal, and with reserve time, his service exceeds 20 years.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, his commander asked Jordan what he wanted to do about his Army career. He could have chosen medical retirement, but Jordan decided to stay in the Army.
"It would have been too easy to get out," he said. "I thought about my wife and my kids, and there are a lot of things I hadn't accomplished.”
Jordan said he hopes someday reach the rank of sergeant major. The Army has been right for him, he said, and his loyalty runs deep.
“The Army really took care of me,” he said. “I received a lot of treatment I wouldn't have gotten on the outside."
Jordan’s wife, Dara, said she feels the same way.
"He needed to take care of his family," she said. "He needed a sense of normalcy. … Besides, I kind of like being an Army wife."
After the first tumor was found in 1999, the Jordans flew to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. James passed out during the flight and almost died en route, Dara said. Once at Tripler, James' tumor was initially diagnosed as non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Dara was sent back to South Korea to bear the news to her three children and to move her family to Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Through trying times of high-dosage chemotherapy, Jordan insisted on working as much as possible, and Dara kept the household running. After three years of chemotherapy, the tumor had shrunk, and Jordan was allowed to relocate to Kitzingen, Germany, with the 1st Infantry Division, which was preparing to deploy to Iraq.
But soon after settling in, Jordan began having chest pains - a tumor was growing again. He would have to return to Fort Sam Houston for more treatments.
"I felt bad about my soldiers going to Iraq," Jordan said. "I went to Fort Sam to focus on getting well and back to work … serving the country."
This time, the tumor was diagnosed as a form of thyroid cancer. Jordan again was reassigned to Fort Sam Houston, and Dara had to move the family by herself. Surgeons removed his thyroid gland and surrounding tissues, including some lung tissue. Doctors followed the surgery with radiation treatment.
The surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and various medicines have changed Jordan's body.
He used to run upwards of 10 miles per day, doing physical training in the mornings and then helping his soldiers bring up their scores in the evenings, Dara said. He was a track star in high school - ranking third in his home state of Oklahoma.
Today he has bad knees, a result of the steroids doctors prescribed to keep his strength up during chemotherapy. His lung capacity also is diminished from radiation treatments and the loss of tissue.
Still, he passes his Army physical fitness tests, riding a bicycle 6.2 miles in less than 27 minutes as an alternative to running, and he performs the standard push-up and sit-up tests.
During his battle with cancer, Jordan has been surrounded by family and friends. At Fort Sam Houston, he was close to his extended family in Oklahoma. Soldiers called from Iraq to check on him, and many churches prayed for him.
"Prayer really, really works," Jordan said, adding he would receive letters from churches he had never heard of, saying they are praying for him.
Those letters helped Dara, too, who admitted she has had some dark days during her husband's struggle.
The Jordans’ support was widespread. A South Korean soldier who augmented U.S. troops in his country frequently called Jordan to see how he was doing.
"I'd like to think that if I can have that impact on a Korean soldier, I have an impact on American soldiers," Jordan said.
He said he knows he has made an impact on his children. When they were asked in school to write about a hero, they chose to write about him. He remembers his children visiting him in the hospital, knowing they were uncomfortable seeing him with tubes coming out of his body.
"I'd rather have him deployed for a year and come back the same man than go through what we've gone through," Dara said.
The lack of a deployment weighs heavily on Jordan, not only because he wasn't with his soldiers downrange, but also because he believes he owes it to his country. "He feels like he's been cheated," Dara said.
In today's Army, a soldier not wearing a combat patch is viewed by some in a negative light, she said, noting that she’s had to defend Jordan’s bare right shoulder to other spouses who judged the situation before being told about his personal war with cancer.
With the cancer now in its fourth year of remission, the Jordans are back in Germany, and they keep in touch with their now-adult children and their grandson via Web cam. "He's stole the show," Dara said about their grandson.
Jordan said he has worked with two soldiers who have died of cancer, and several others who have been diagnosed.
"When I went to the hospital, I saw a lot of soldiers with cancer," he said. He uses his cancer story to tell others that a diagnosis doesn't mean a death sentence.
Almost nine years after his initial diagnosis, Jordan is enjoying life with his wife in Germany, where they like bike rides, working out and dining out together. They also hope to travel to Rome, Paris and Israel.
"There are a lot of things we didn't do," Jordan said of their last tour in Germany. "We want to go places."
But for now, Dara said, "We're just counting our blessings, every day."
(Jason Austin works in the U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Wuerttemberg Public Affairs Office.)