Soldier-survivor recalls Army's support throughout personal battle with cancer
September 17, 2008
HEIDELBERG, Germany -- "I love the Army," said Sgt. 1st Class James Jordan. At the age of 33, while stationed in Korea, doctors found a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his chest. He had cancer, and almost nine years later, he's still in uniform.
"I praise God for that," he said.
Jordan is the senior paralegal for the Europe Regional Medical Command Judge Advocate General office, having just arrived in country in July.
His first tour in Germany was cut short. As his troops with the 1st Infantry Division were deploying to Iraq, he was returning for cancer treatments at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"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."
Jordan has 16 years of active-duty service as a paralegal, and with reserve time, he already exceeds 20 years.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was asked by his commander what he wanted to do about his Army career. Faced with an option to medically retire, Jordan decided to stay 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.
"(The rank of) sergeant major is still out there. I want to be able to say I retired from the Army after 20 or 30 years. The Army really took care of me. I received a lot of treatment I wouldn't have gotten on the outside."
"He needed to take care of his family," said his wife, Dara Jordan. "He needed a sense of normalcy ... Besides, I kinda like being an Army wife."
After the initial discovery of the tumor in 1999, the Jordans flew to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. Dara said James passed out during the flight and almost died en route.
Once at Tripler, James' tumor was initially diagnosed as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Dara was sent back to Korea to bear the news to her three children and to move her family to Fort Sam Houston.
A friend, who happened to be a sergeant major, worked the system and arranged for a layover in Hawaii, where the family met up with James and traveled with him to San Antonio.
She said they sneaked out of the hospital to in-process and find housing and transportation before he began high-dose chemotherapy.
Through trying times, Jordan insisted on working as much as possible, and Dara kept the household running.
After three years of chemotherapy, James said the tumor had shrunk, and he was allowed to relocate to the 1st Infantry Division in Kitzingen.
After settling in Kitzingen, James began having chest pains - the tumor was growing again.
This time the tumor was diagnosed as a form of thyroid cancer, and James again was reassigned to Fort Sam Houston; and Dara had to move the family by herself.
Once at Fort Sam Houston, surgeons removed his thyroid gland and surrounding tissues, to include lung tissue. Doctors followed the surgery with radiation treatment.
The surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and various medicines have changed James' body.
He used to run upwards of 10 miles a day, doing physical training in the mornings and then helping his Soldiers up their score in the evenings, Dara said. He was a track star in high school - ranked 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 is also diminished from the loss of tissue and radiation treatments.
Still today he passes his Army physical fitness tests, riding a bicycle 6.2 miles in less than 27 minutes for the alternate aerobic event, and performs the standard pushup and sit-up events.
During his battle with cancer, James says he 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," James 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 admits she had some dark days during her husband's struggle.
James also had a Korean Augmentation Troops to the United States Army soldier from Korea frequently call him 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," he said.
He knows he made an impact on his children. When 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 there 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 heavy on James, not only because he wasn't with his Soldiers downrange, but because he feels he owes it to his country.
"He feels like he's been cheated because he hasn't gone downrange," Dara said.
In today's Army a Soldier not wearing a combat patch is viewed by some in a negative light she said. Even as a spouse she has had to defend his bare right shoulder to other spouses who judged the situation before being told about his personal war with cancer.
Now in his fourth year of remission, James and his wife 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.
James said he plans to participate in this weekend's Cancer Awareness Laps for Life event in Heidelberg.
Jordan said he knows two Soldiers he worked with in the past who have since died from 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, he is enjoying life with his wife.
Jordan said they have some unfinished business in Germany.
"There are a lot of things we didn't do," Jordan said. "We want to go places."
The top three travel destinations for the couple - Rome, Paris and Israel.
Locally they are taking bike rides, working out, and dining out together.
"We're just counting our blessing every day," Dara said.
(Editor's Note: Jason Austin writes for the USAG Baden-Wuerttemberg newspaper, the Herald Post.)