Chaplain fights cancer with support of her military and martial arts families
May 13, 2010
Army Chaplain (Capt.) Melissa Hale is easily described as a fighter. Although she didn't carry a weapon on her Iraq deployment, because chaplains are not permitted to, she has the spirit of a warrior, and she has the skills to go with it.
Trained in the martial arts of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Hale is a "Sandan," which is a third-degree black belt. While deployed as a chaplain with the 230th Brigade Support Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, she taught this form of martial arts at Forward Operating Base Falcon, south of Baghdad. She has been training for six years and now hosts a small training group in the dojo behind her house in Smithfield, N.C.
Although the she no longer has to worry about mortar attacks or improvised explosive devices, the chaplain has a new battle to fight.
During the final months of her deployment to Iraq, Hale was medically evacuated back to the U.S. when she discovered what most women hope they never find; a lump in her left breast. She underwent surgery to have the breast removed, and is currently taking chemotherapy.
"It was infiltrating ductile carcinoma, a three-and-a-half-centimeter mass, five lymph nodes were malignant, estrogen and progesterone receptor positive and HER2 positive," said Hale. "Translation; a really aggressive cancer and a longer period of chemotherapy and radiation than I originally thought."
Despite her struggles, Hale made sure she was on the ground at Fort Stewart, Ga., when her unit returned from Iraq, shaking hands and hugging each Soldier as they passed by her.
On March 15, several members of her military and Bujinkan family came together to show their support for Hale.
Knowing her trademark red hair would fall out as a result of the chemo, Hale wanted her hair gone on her own terms. She and her husband decided to turn the event into a party.
"It seemed natural to make a party out of it," said Hale. "Laughter has a way of making difficult situations easier, of calming tense moments, and just generally making one feel better."
The couple sent out electronic invitations, encouraging people to attend a head shaving party for "our favorite little red-head chaplain, ninja, wife, and all-around go-to person."
Fourteen people shaved in honor and support of Hale. Spc. Mark Green, a neighbor of the Hales, shaved his leg instead of his head because of an upcoming job interview.
"One of the Bujinkan instructors with whom I train shaved his beard that he had not shaved in 25 years," said Hale. "I was amazed at the number of people who decided to join in."
"I thought the head-shaving party was an excellent way to break the ice," said Green. "Nothing will give a person confidence like having family and friends right there, every step of the way, or in this case, every clip."
One of the Soldiers who Hale deployed with, Capt. Tim Smith, decided at the last minute to shave his head.
"Well, it wasn't for style points, you saw my noggin," joked Smith. "I wanted to let Chaplain Hale know that I support her through the difficulties she is going through. She is handling it great like the warrior she is but it never hurts to know there are friends around."
Before the actual shaving of her head, friends and family of Hale requested that she braid her hair so that they may keep the braids.
"The braids sort of took a life of its own by the time the party showed up... having the braid in the dojo is the same kind of support that a yellow ribbon is. You don't forget until it's over and then you can take it down," said Mike Hale, Capt. Hale's husband.
Nervous about doing it right, Mike enlisted the help of 1st Lt. Nicole Ebert, and Staff Sgt. Stefani Cunningham, two Soldiers who served with Hale in Iraq.
"The party was really touching. How many people would do what they did' Not many and she had a slew of them shave their heads for her. That was just awesome," said Cunningham.
Mike plans on using his braid as a tassel on one of his knives, and Tidewater and Hidden Mountain Dojos are going to place the braids on their Kamidanas, or shrines, which are the focal points of the dojos.
"My red hair has always been a defining feature for me," said Hale. "There are times when I have been referred to as 'the red-headed chaplain.' I think Mike and the others wanted me to know that even though I wasn't going to have my red hair for a while, it wasn't going to be forgotten."
For now, the red-headed chaplain is going hairless, but the spirit everyone associates with her hair is still there and still going strong.