Chaplain wins race against cancer
October 3, 2013
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- He was deployed in Iraq in December 2006, ministering to Soldiers who were physically, spiritually, morally and sometimes mortally wounded.
By November 2007, he noticed a growth on his right shoulder. A short time later he was told to go home and enjoy what would be his last Christmas with his family.
Chaplain (Capt.) Jeremiah Catlin was 32 years old at the time, with a wife and two small children.
"(The doctors) told me I had a Stage 4 melanoma in my chest, arm, neck and head," Catlin said. "It had wrapped around my carotid and brachial arteries, and they said I had a year to live."
His family was at Fort Bliss, Texas when he was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to undergo surgery to try to remove some of the melanoma -- with no significant effect.
"They were recommending chemotherapy and radiation treatments to prolong my life," Catlin said. "But the diagnosis was the same. I went to three different hospitals to see what treatments were available. At Johns Hopkins the doctor told me, 'I won't treat you, I will cure you.'"
The physician, Dr. Edward Balch, literally wrote the book on how to surgically remove Catlin's type of melanoma. Balch assembled a team of surgeons, and in February 2008, Catlin underwent the surgery that would save his life.
"They told me there was a high probability that I would lose the use of my right arm," Catlin said. "I was really scared and so was my wife. We had started to doubt we'd made the best decision. During the surgery my artery burst and I lost two liters of blood. For a while they considered amputating my right arm. I still have nerve damage there and no lymph nodes. But they saved the arm, and I came out of surgery cancer-free."
His religious convictions notwithstanding, Catlin had lingering doubts about his cancer-free status.
"I had resolved that God was done with me -- that he didn't need my ministry," he said. "While I was receiving immunotherapy, I met a Vietnam veteran. He didn't want to take his treatment unless he was allowed to sit with me. I ended up ministering to him while we both received treatment. I was humbled that God still chose to use me."
By 2008, Catlin had formed a nonprofit organization to address the spiritual needs of wounded veterans and their families. While he was recovering at Fort Meade, Md., he ministered to other troops who were severely wounded or disabled. Near the end of 2012, Catlin was officially declared to be in remission.
Against doctors' orders he began to train for physical readiness again.
"They told me I couldn't run because of the damage to the arm. The same thing with pushups -- they had to cut my pectoral muscle in half during the surgery, and they said that running would tax my arteries beyond what was healthy," Catlin said. "I finally convinced my doctor to remove the profile and I took my first physical training test since 2006 in June, and I passed!"
Catlin is currently enrolled in the Chaplain Captain Career Course at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School -- a course for mid-level chaplains. He will graduate Nov. 20 and be sent to his next duty station.
"My goal with running was to do something bigger. I thought about the Darlington marathon because of the symbolism of me crossing that finish line. They call it 'The Race Too Tough to Tame,'" he said.
Catlin ran 26.2 miles in Darlington in 4 hours, 47 minutes on Saturday.
His wife Shari said the journey has been hard but rewarding.
"At the racetrack I kept praying he wouldn't get discouraged," she said. "I prayed he would know when to listen to his body. We tracked his telephone with an iPad. The girls were so excited."
It was a very emotional finish for the Catlins, who said they have had support from friends and strangers from the beginning of their ordeal to the end of the marathon. When she had to fly from Fort Bliss to visit her husband in the hospital at Walter Reed, Shari said women from Protestant Women of the Chapel took her children into their homes. Right now, when Jeremiah gets his annual cancer screening, his best friend -- who also is a chaplain -- makes arrangements to have time off so he can accompany him.
Jeremiah's story serves as a lesson in resilience to his classmates and peers, said Chaplain (Col.) Pete Sniffin, deputy commandant of the USACHCS.
"Jeremiah is an inspiration to all of us because his dedication to recovery is based in his dedication to his calling to serve God and country. He believes God called him to this task and that he was never relieved of it, so he presses on in faith and demonstrates to us that faith-based resilience is truly awesome," he said.