Veteran’s Day By Katie Lee

The year is 2003, and it’s March. Bush just declared war in Iraq. My boyfriend was serving in the Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan and had just transferred to his first-choice duty station in Camp Pendleton, California. We got married in April 2003 at the courthouse on Mission Bay in beautiful San Diego, California.  For a “take a number” wedding, it was perfect for me. We had his two friends as our witnesses, and we were married. We could finally be together after over a year of emails and late-night international phone calls.

I flew back to Oregon to gather my things and move to our new apartment in San Diego. Little did we know that he would be sent overseas to enter the newly minted warzone in Iraq and Kuwait for the “Operation Enduring Freedom” mission against the war on terror and the Iraqi regime. He called me to let me know he was given 24 hours’ notice that he would be deployed to meet up with his squadron that went overseas while he was in the process of taking leave and transferring duty stations.  Keep in mind we had just married and barely had our marriage certificate. There was a TON of paperwork to complete to make me an official military dependent, and I had ZERO clue of what being a military wife entailed.

I was 22 years old and had visited Camp Pendleton only once, a month prior, to move him into his barracks and briefly tour the base.  He had to add me to his bank account, add me to his military life insurance, and give me instructions on how to get my military ID card when I arrived in California without him. If you’ve ever been on a military base or installation, you soon realize it isn’t civilian life anymore. There are procedures to go through, and it can be quite intimidating. Especially when you arrive at the gates and are greeted by MP’s with large guns.  All this, plus the fear of him leaving to a warzone, was overwhelming. We would be familiar with this again later in life.

I was happy to find that I was able to communicate with my new husband via email and phone calls while he was in Kuwait. Not as much as we’d liked, but enough to get by. My husband was an Avionics Electrician, which meant he maintained and fixed the electronic components of CH-46 helicopters on the ground and in flight. They were Vietnam era aircraft and required about 4 times the maintenance to every hour of flight, so they stayed very busy.  He went out on “Cas Evac” missions (casualty evacuations) conducted in Iraqi warzones during the height of the Iraqi invasion. When on these missions, I was unable to contact him and that would be usually for one week at a time.

During his second mission, I was on base getting the oil changed in my car when I was notified that one of his squadron’s helicopters went down in the Euphrates river in Iraq. My heart fell out of my chest in fear. When things like this happen, all communications from the warzone are disabled. Until the families of the deceased service members are notified, there is no information. This was the first time in our relationship that we faced mortality together. It is something neither of us would ever forget or take for granted.

We would face mortality in our life again at a young age. I was diagnosed with rectal cancer ten years later just 7 months after the birth of our second child, a daughter. The tables were turned, and we now faced my mortality instead of his. The prospect of living without me was something we didn’t want to come to terms with as young parents. We lived in uncertainty for two months while I completed a variety of tests, biopsies, and scans to see if they could stage my cancer. During that time, we waited and wondered what our future would hold. Not knowing what kind of treatment or surgery I would receive; it was extremely difficult to plan our life. Everything was on hold. I remember thinking of our early years, my husband’s military service, and how cancer brought back many of the same feelings.  Ultimately, these life changing circumstances brought us closer and helped us appreciate each other and the life we made together.  We are grateful for all the time we have now and whatever the future holds for us. Every day is a gift. 

I was fortunate enough to have been diagnosed early with stage 1 rectal cancer.  It still left me with a permanent colostomy, but I am happy to be here and present in this beautiful life.  Since my diagnosis and surgery, I decided to go back to school and check off a bucket list item which was to get my bachelor’s degree in nursing. I plan on specializing as an ostomy nurse and start nursing school this January.

I can honestly say I could never have come as far as I have without my caregiver, my husband, my USMC veteran who’s supported me through sickness and in health.  If there ever was the perfect person to “be in the foxhole with,” my veteran spouse is the winner every single time. 

Our veterans have a gift of resilience like no one else.  These special people have been put through the fire and tested in ways we could never imagine as civilians.  As we observe Veteran’s Day, I would like to give a HUGE thank you to all who have served and those who continue to serve in the U.S. military. We are eternally grateful.

Katie Lee is Stage 1 Rectal Cancer Survivor and 2016 Colondar Featured Survivor