James and I met at his civilian job (he was in the Army Reserves for the last 28 years of his career) at a jail. He was a supervisor on first shift, and I was a newly hired correctional specialist on second, but did all my overtime on first. The first time I met him, I was intrigued. What a good looking man! The first week I was there in training (the last part of March 2005), the supervisors were undergoing taser training. He got teased and sounded just like Chewbacca. It cracked me up and became an easy way to tease him.
We started talking when I did my overtime as I was usually a rover (not assigned to a module and therefore had direct communication with the supervisors) and we got along quite well. That July he asked me to come over to watch a movie on my days off. I agreed but we weren’t able to exchange numbers until the next week due to an incident that came up right then. So on July 26, 2005 I came over to his house to watch a movie and hang out. I knew then there was something between us. We started talking everyday after that and were together. Though we couldn’t be open about our relationship at the time.
Through our talks, I learned a lot about him. He was raised in Georgia, where he attended an all black school before integration happened. He was then drafted at the age of 20 in September 1972. He signed his enlistment papers Oct. 24 of that year and stayed on Active Duty until Sept. of 1980 when he switched over to the Army Reserves. Feb. 2003 he was called up as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 with the 450th Movement Control Battalion out of Manhattan, KS. He was based out of Talil, Iraq, though traveled throughout the country. He came home March 2004 and his blood work was crazy! They told him to see his civilian provider and so he did and was sent to a blood specialist.
The specialist monitored his blood work, but never really said much to him. During this time issues of PTSD arose and he was VERY angry. He was able to control it a bit as time went on, but the issues were still there. He was monitored for a few months then let go with no further information given. When we met in 2005, he was doing better, but certain things were triggers for him. He was still very physically fit, especially for a man in his mid 50s and was able to keep up with this young 20’s girl! As our relationship grew, his ability to run was getting harder and harder and he struggled with it. We chalked it up to his age (he was 53 when we first met) and didn’t think much about it.
In Feb. 2007 we went and got legally married, and 7 weeks later had our wedding. He was set to deploy with the 139th Medical Group out of Independence, MO to Kosovo as part of Task Force Med Falcon XIV, KFOR9 that summer. He started trainings and deployed late summer. He was in Kosovo until July 2008. During this time he mentioned how “humping those hills” over there was taking his breath away. When he got home, we figured his fatigue was due to age, the time and altitude changes, and didn’t think much of it. We were newly weds, he was healthy (never taking a pill), and we had plans. He went to the VA hospital that Sept. to begin post deployment check-up.
After a few appointments they did blood work. A couple days later we were called and told he needed to come back that the test results were odd and wanted to repeat them. When those results came back they called panicked saying that he needed to come in right then and may be hospitalized! We were confused! He being who he was said he’d come in a few days later. When we did they had us see a hematologist who stated that his counts were low and they wanted to schedule a bone marrow biopsy. The doctor said he thought it was most likely a parasite, but a slim chance for cancer, but if it was it wasn’t the bad kind (is there such a thing as a good cancer?). They wanted to do the biopsy the next weekend, but he had a military thing with the Brigade’s General and said they’d have to wait until he got back.
So on the anniversary of 36 years of service he had his biopsy. We were told we’d hear back in 3 weeks the results. So on Nov. 14, 2008 we were called into the room and the doctor said he had Leukemia, but they weren’t sure if it were Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia or Bi-lineagal Acute Mylogenous Leukemia. We were in shock! He had no family history of any cancers! The dr said that they were seeing an increase in the number of soldiers coming back from Iraq with Leukemias and other cancers and that based on his history (the funky blood work, where he was based, his age, and the type of cancer) that he got his cancer from his tour in Iraq!
Our world was rocked to the core! How could this be?!?! So we fought to use his civilian insurance because the VA they wanted us to use was unacceptable! The dr wouldn’t answer questions, he told me not to ask things, and the place was just not good. They only gave a 60% survival rate too. So we got to MD Anderson in Houston, TX and met with the dr in Feb. 2009. She gave him a 90-95% survival rate! We were hopeful that this was the path we were meant to be and that we could really start our lives together. We started treatment the next week. When we started treatment he had 85% leukemia blasts in his blood. After cycle 2, he was down to 0.6%!! In cycle 4 the dr said that after cycle 5 we would do another biopsy and if his levels were 0.00% then no transplant would be needed, anything higher and he would. They also changed his antibiotic that cycle. When we saw the dr on May 19, I expressed my concern with his severe diarrhea and the dr said take more Imodium and see you in a few weeks. We came home like we did after every cycle.
On the 21st I went to see my dad and James stayed home as he was exhausted as normal. I came home that afternoon and James asked me to hurry home as he had an accident and needed help. I helped clean him up, got him some applesauce to eat and some water to drink and brought it to him. He fell over on the bed and just wasn’t right. I called 9-1-1 and they arrived shortly after. While waiting for them, I took his hand, told him I loved him and not to leave me. That I couldn’t live without him. EMS arrived and I explained the situation and told them he wanted to live!!! As soon as they kicked me out of our room, he stopped breathing and they began working on him. I was looking for his med list and just going crazy.. Having my heart beat out of my chest, breaking with every beat. One of the workers came downstairs to go to the ambulance to get something and I stated “He’s not breathing is he?” and the guy said no. I knew he was gone. They brought him downstairs and out to the ambulance and they left for the hospital, leaving me to follow in my own vehicle!
I got to the hospital and was prevented from going into the ER. The doctorr came and asked me a few questions while I registered him. A few minutes later he came and told me he was gone. He tried asking more things and all I kept saying was could I be with him. I went into the room and sat there with my handsome husband. My world crashing all around and my future was black. As I sat there with him waiting for my family and having to call his grown sons to let them know the horrible news, our life flashed in front of me. At 6:10pm on May 21, 2009 my husband was pronounced dead. The following days the arrangements were made, the house cleaned, and the funeral planned.
Now its been almost one year since I last held him and kissed him. I am still here. My heart still breaks, but the future isn’t so black, its charcoal. I will always love him, and he will always be with me. I don’t cry as often, but I do cherish our memories. I love to share his story and share the information as not all of our soldiers are dying on the battlefield, instead at home. They are casualties of war, and often the most forgotten. James served 36 years, 6 months, and 27 days at the time of his death, with no breaks in service. I am proud to be called his wife, his widow, and his memory keeper. His sons, Ja’Vaughn and Ashton, and our grandson Keegan are my strength. We are his story tellers, and the ones that are most blessed to have him be our family. Always and Forever.