Soldier aims to inspire, survive, thrive despite living with illness
April 6, 2012
- Soldier will march 100 miles in four days to raise funds for cancer research. He was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the spring of 2010.
FORT LEE, Va. (April 6, 2012) -- The plan is set. Sgt. 1st Class Patrick J. Kelly of Mike Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade, will lace up his boots, throw a 50-pound rucksack over his shoulders and march around the installation until he has covered 25 miles.
He will repeat it the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
"Obviously, when I hit 75 miles on day three," said the 35-year-old of what might be called a 100-mile gut check, "the pace might slow a little bit, but I will finish in the allotted time."
Kelly's declaration to complete a 100-mile road march June 1-4 here may paint him as someone who is cocksure or a boisterous challenge-seeker. Both may be true, but his character and his quest can't be summed up in one brush stroke.
Patrick John (called "P.J." by his wife) Kelly was born in New Hampshire and raised mostly in Arkansas, where his father moved the family as an employee of a paper company.
In 1993, Kelly joined the Army to "serve my country and go (into) combat," in his words. He enlisted as a 12B -- combat engineer, a job that is essentially an infantryman with construction skills. He served until 1998 but found himself back in uniform after 9-11.
"The day the 'Shock and Awe' started, I re-enlisted," he said of his 2002 signup. "That was my chance to go to combat."
It was an opportunity to contribute but not one that would put him in the midst of sustained warfare as he had hoped. "They wouldn't let me go 12B because of the stop-loss," said Kelly, referring to the program that prevents Soldiers from changing jobs or leaving the service. "It was either 92Y (unit supply), 92A or 63B (light-wheel vehicle mechanic)."
Kelly chose 92A -- automated logistical specialist -- and eventually served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
After his return from the latter in the spring of 2010, Kelly, the image of bravado who craved combat, suffered what he thought was a heart attack. He was eventually diagnosed with cancer-- splenic marginal zone lymphoma, to be exact -- a rare affliction that affects the B-cells of the spleen.
"I have an 85-percent remission rate, so every time I get sick there's an 85-percent chance the cancer symptoms will return," said Kelly, who is currently in remission. There is also a 95-percent chance that it will reoccur. "They don't know why it comes back or why you can't get rid of it," he added. "It could be next year. It could be when I'm 70."
A prognosis like that would turn most people's universe upside down. Kelly's earth is still on axis and has remained that way since he received the diagnosis.
"My first response was 'Am I going to get kicked out of the Army?'" he said. "I never once pitied myself or thought I was going to die, and believe it or not, most of it was because of my wife. I looked at her right when he (the doctor) told me, and she said it was 'just a speed bump.'"
Kelly saw it that way as well, and that attitude has made an impression on his battle buddy, Sgt. William Strickland, who served with him in Afghanistan. Strickland said he was struck by his friend's disregard for "speed bumps" or, better still, his unwavering positivity.
"That's what helped him get through this ordeal," said the Fort Carson, Colo., Soldier. "He was never at a point in which he was downtrodden. He even joked about it. He kept the same attitude he had before he got the diagnosis."
Still, living with cancer is arguably more than a speed bump. Consider Kelly's physical condition -- at 170 pounds he looks healthy but is without a gall bladder, has no immune system, occasionally can't feel his legs and suffers from atrophy in his left shoulder. He brags that he can still, however, do the maximum number of pushups.
"I don't let anything slow me down," the advanced individual training platoon sergeant said, noting he has to spend more time working out.
Now consider Kelly's daily routine -- he works 12-hour shifts pushing troops and ingests 10 pills and vitamins throughout the course of the day to help him deal with pain and stay healthy. Details like that prompted the leadership to consider pulling him off platoon sergeant status.
"As a leader, you kind of look at your footprint to see what kind of changes you need to implement," said Mike Company 1st Sgt. Terry Williams. "When I first heard about Sgt. 1st Class Kelly, I thought I might keep an eye on him and would possibly have to move him or try to find a different job for him. But I tell you, within the first couple of weeks of knowing him, I knew right off the bat I'm not going to lose this guy. I'm going to fight to keep him no matter what."
All who know him agree that Kelly is a face-to-the-wind dynamo who can find positivity in the unlikeliest of corners, yet he doesn't downplay how serious cancer really is. He just doesn't like the negativity, doom and pity associated with having it. That was evident during the summer of 2010, when he was undergoing his second treatment of chemotherapy. He was attending a unit dining out. Alone with the battalion commander, first sergeant and sergeant major, he felt queasy and tried to remove himself from their presence. Things went downhill from there.
"I tried to exit the room so I wouldn't throw up on anybody," he recalled, noting the affects of the chemotherapy.
"I didn't make it."
Some laughed and thought he "couldn't hold his liquor." The battalion commander knew about his condition and angrily admonished the onlookers, then told all the attendees about Kelly's illness.
"I'm not going to say people felt sorry for me, but people were crying and upset," he recalled. "I've come to find out that when you have this disease and you bluntly break it to somebody, they don't know how to react."
Kelly said most people have feelings of sorrow, sympathy or pity. It's something he wants no part of.
"Most people with cancer who I know don't want to be treated like that," he said. "They want to be treated like a normal human being, just like anyone else."
Although he decries special treatment, Kelly is quite open with his condition and wants to help others to deal with it. The vomit episode helped turn him in that direction.
"When the battalion commander (made his announcement), I thought, 'I probably should tell people and use how I dealt with it and how I've maintained a positive attitude to inspire people through the different hard times that they have,'" he said.
The road march is an extension of his desire to help. Aiming to raise money and awareness for cancer research, it's also a signature charity event -- one that epitomizes Kelly's persona and one that intends to send a clear message that anything is possible.
"If you have cancer and can do a 100-mile road march, then I can get up and go to PT when I'm sore or I've got Family problems," said Kelly, referring to the event. "There's nothing that can't be achieved if you put your mind to it."
It's a cliché for sure, but nevertheless an accurate expression of Kelly's outlook in his battle against cancer. He puts it this way:
"I can't wait to do the march and can't wait to achieve the 100 miles," he said. "I tell everybody whether I raise a dollar or $100,000, I'm doing 100 miles. I have a saying with my Soldiers, 'If Sergeant Kelly tells you something, you can take it to the bank. It's going to happen.'"
One could find that statement undoubtedly cocksure and no less boisterous or challenging, but it's hard to paint a rosier picture than that.