Soldier Gives Part of Himself to Help Friend
July 28, 2008
A Soldier expects his comrades to cover him on the battlefield, but what about once he gets home' For one Soldier, when a life threatening illness hit his best friend, time and distance didn't matter.
Maj. Benjamin Johnson donated a kidney to Maj. Keith Elliott.
Johnson and Elliott met in 1997 at Fort Polk, La., in the 2nd Army Cavalry Regiment. Finding common ground as single African-American lieutenants in the Army and Masonic brothers, they formed a fast friendship.
After a deployment to Bosnia, Johnson was given a permanent change of station to Fort Sill, Okla., for a Field Artillery course, and Elliott went to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., for a Military Intelligence course. From that point on, the friends' military careers took different paths, and they lost contact for some time.
In 2004 Johnson and Elliott reconnected after finding out one of their friends from Fort Polk was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Elliott had just PCSed to Hawaii. He had not even unpacked before he was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for severe renal failure.
"I was already diagnosed 9-10 months prior to leaving Fort Bragg (N.C.)," Elliott said. "They let me PCS because they did not think that I was severe enough to need a transplant. As soon as I got to Hawaii, and checked in with the medics, I was immediately put on a transplant list."
"It's sad and a blessing," Johnson said, "that it took a tragic death to sparkplug our communication after so many years."
Elliott's wife was deployed at the time, and he needed someone to talk to, to vent to. While scrolling through his phone list, he passed Johnson's name and decided to check in with him to vent. Before the conversation was over, Johnson volunteered to get tested.
According to Elliott, when he objected to Johnson getting tested, he was told that Johnson had decided to get tested whether Elliott wanted it or not.
"I did not contact Ben to be a donor," Elliott said. "I wouldn't put my friends in that position. I was willing to take my chances with my family and the donor list."
Frustrated by the initial hurry up and wait, Johnson continued working full time on his master's of business administration while the military would fly him back and forth for various tests -- MRI, ultra sound and blood work -- to find out his compatibility.
"Transplants are a funny thing," Elliott said. "We found out he (Johnson) was a suitable candidate within about 60 days. The doctors did not confirm that they would use him for the surgery until the day before. Army docs reserve the right to not do the surgery if anything seems off with a donor who is not family."
When it came to actually going through with the surgery, "it was an easy decision to make," Johnson said.
Elliott had mixed emotions about Johnson volunteering for the surgery.
"The fact that he volunteered, it wasn't difficult. He and I had been through a lot together," Elliott said. "It really was an act of God. I was happy that he wanted to do it, but sad because of what he was about to have to go through."
Elliott considered himself fortunate because he had a lot of people who wanted to donate.
"I even turned people away who offered. No one in my family was a match," he said.
Throughout the rest of 2005, Johnson and Elliott were on pins and needles until the date for the surgery was set for Feb. 16, 2006.
At the time of the surgery, Elliott was very fit. His biggest problem was exhaustion, but physically he looked fine.
"I was still doing PT twice a day before the surgery. If you looked at me, you wouldn't have known that I was sick, but if you looked at my tests, I was pretty bad off. Because I was in such good shape physically, WRAMC actually postponed my transplant almost eight months and did other people who weren't in as good a shape as I was," he said.
Elliott didn't have to go through dialysis until "48 hours prior to the surgery for two hours, just one day. They only did it to completely clean my system."
The day of the surgery was an emotional experience for Johnson.
"There weren't any tears until I was wheeled into the operating room," Johnson said. "They weren't from fear; just knowing that we have the ability to give a part of ourselves to someone else and survive is just amazing."
Following the surgery, ironically, when Johnson went back for a checkup he found out that his cretin level was high, so he had to go through blood work to find out what was going on. At the same time, Elliott's body was trying to reject the new kidney. The doctors were able to do tests and get both situations under control.
Both were reluctant to let the other know they were having problems. Weeks later when everything was stabilized, they discussed their issues.
"It was a trip to learn that we were going through the same thing at the exact same time," Johnson said. "It was kind of like ... do you remember those GI Joe twins Tomax and Xamot' If one was hit, the other felt it. We started wondering if we would be the same."
Johnson said Elliott is a true Soldier. He fought hard to get well and be fit enough to go back into active duty military service. Then he fought to deploy to Afghanistan, and did it.
"I worked hard to put myself in a position to deploy," Elliott said, "and I did. Afghanistan was my fourth rotation. I didn't do it to prove a point. For me it was business as usual."
Elliott has the distinction of being the first Soldier to be placed back on active duty after a kidney transplant.
He didn't have any problems while in Afghanistan. But four months into a six month rotation, the medics made the decision to send him home.
The military doctors in Afghanistan did not want to take the chance that they wouldn't have what he needed if something happened, so Elliott ended up redeploying early to ramp up the follow-on unit.
"I probably could have fought it and stayed," Elliott said. "But I felt like it was taking a toll on my unit. They were putting a lot of energy into keeping me that should have been going to the mission."
Early on, Elliott made a decision that his medical status was not going to affect his military career.
He told the doctors, "If I'm the first, use me to the fullest so that I can answer questions for guys later. Don't treat me with kid gloves. Track me, maintain me, but don't take me away from the fight and my team. I'm not going to let this stop me. The Army said I'm fit to fight, and I'm going to."
During this time Elliott worked for Maj. Gen. Jim Myles - now the commander of the Aviation and Missile Command and Redstone Arsenal -- at Army Test and Evaluation Command.
"(Myles) always encouraged me to be a quiet professional," Elliott said. "If I wanted to be a Soldier, be a Soldier. Without Ben, I wouldn't be here. Without Maj. Gen. Myles, I wouldn't be here.
"There were days that I wanted to give up, and (Myles) gave me the motivation to keep going. His mentorship helped me so much. I told myself, I'm going to make this happen, and I did."
Elliott said he loves the Army. His ultimate goal is to one day sit on a medical board, and to help another Soldier along who may have medical challenges and still wants to stay in the Army.
Johnson has not deployed since the surgery, but did transition out of operations to the Acquisition Corps.
Johnson said his mother was not happy when she learned of his decision to donate a kidney to his friend.
"Mom was livid when she found out," he said. "But I was thinking, I don't have to ask permission. I'm single and I'm not a minor."
He told his mother that when you join the military you leave one family behind and join another.
"I did catch a little flack over the decision, but I had to go with what I was certain was the right decision," Johnson said.
When the two Soldiers' parents met in Washington, the two families became one large family with a common goal: get Elliott well. Elliott's mother gave Johnson's mother a card that said, "Thank God for you and your son."
"We all still communicate today," Johnson said. "We are one really large family, Keith and I are brothers now. He was a great enough of a friend for me to do this for him. I wouldn't change it."