FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - What have you accomplished in the past
year of life? Imagine if the gift of life itself were threatened to be taken away from you, and then the soul of the very thing you love most, to be submerged in the water, were then put on extended pause?
Would you fight or accept defeat?
U.S. Army Reservist and lifeguard Sgt. Kawaiola Nahale, 311th Signal Command, was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer in April 2013. Within 30 days of diagnosis, she had a mastectomy in one breast, lumpectomy in the other and was preparing to begin chemotherapy. Fast forward a year and a few months later, by September 2014, not only had she been pronounced cancer free, but she was back in the water representing the U.S. Army and winning medals at the Invictus Games and then the Warrior Games, international and national wounded warrior competitions.
"Sergeant Nahale is a prime example of a Soldier who has overcome obstacles and has achieved greatness," said Cpt. Jason Grams, 311th Signal Command company commander. "She could have been overcome and discouraged when she was first diagnosed but instead she kept her eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel."
The April 2013 surgery was the first of three surgeries, all at Tripler Army Medical Center, in the space of a year.
"With the surgeries I was not supposed to get in the water," said the 35-year-old. "My plastic surgeon didn't want me in the water at all, for various reasons, mostly infections, but he knew that I love the water, so he wanted to make sure that I could get back in."
To Hawaiians, water is sacred and healing. Nahale's first name, Kawaiola, literally translates to mean water of life.
"Water is a healing tool and has always been that for me, a lot more than just a physical feeling," said Nahale.
Nahale's first try at competition was during recovery between her second and third surgery at the Pacific Games in December 2013, a Department of Defense branch-wide competition involving swimming for time.
"That was my first go at the athletic program or what is called the Adaptive Reconditioning Program," said Nahale, who said the wounded warrior swimmers, while they support one another, don't actually have coaches.
"My coach is the clock," she said. "We went in to compete, have a good time outside WTB and outside of work and to find our personal best time. "
Nahale had her final surgery in February and was then allowed back into the pool in April.
"When I went back to the plastic surgeon in April 2014, he finally gave me the green light to do physical activities again," she said. "I cried in the office when he said that. He said, this is your one year anniversary and I want you to run and I want you to swim and I want you to go back to being the Soldier you were before you came in and before all this happened."
In June, 2014, Nahale flew to West Point, New York where, based on her swim times at the trials there, she qualified to compete in both the Warrior Games and Invictus Games.
She was one of the twenty-two wounded, ill and injured Army Soldiers and Veterans who were selected as part of the 100-member team to represent the United States at Invictus Games from September 10-14, 2014.
"It was such a great opportunity to be a part of the very first Invictus Games and medal at the very first Games," she said.
At Invictus, Nahale was the only representative from Hawaii, and she took home three medals. At the Warrior Games, she was one of two from Hawaii, where she won four more medals.
Competitive swimming is not new to the Reserve Soldier.
"I started doing competitive swimming when I was 6 and I competed through age group swimming, which is year round, and I also competed in high school, but once I graduated from high school ,but I stopped competing because adult life takes over, you have to get a job, but then I was a lifeguard, and then joined the Army, so I maintained my athleticism and physical standards," she said.
Nahale's entire treatment and recovery has been with Army medicine.
"The Army family has supported me in many ways," said Nahale. "My first Army family was with the 311th, especially through the support of the previous command team when I was first diagnosed, 1st Sgt. Martin Jenkins and Capt. Steven Lester and their spouses were truly family with their emotional and physical support."
Jenkins, her former first sergeant, spoke of Nahale as an extention of his own family. "Sergeant Nahale has always been a strong women and a exceptional Soldier," he said. "As her first sergeant, I remember when she came into my office and sat down across from and told me what the doctor told her. She said, 'Top, you have never quit on me and the Reserve Soldiers and I am not about to quit on your with this, I will fight to the end because that is what warriors do."
In addition to her 311th family, Nahale spoke fondly of her brethren at the Warrior Transition Battalion, as well as the support from all of her doctors and healthcare workers at Tripler Army Medical Center and her fellow team mates at both Games.
Although the Army supported her throughout, Nahale gives the most credit to her daughter as the greatest source of strength.
"My daughter is so much stronger than I am," she said. She makes me wake up every day and want to keep going. Even when I was first diagnosed, she said, 'Don't worry Mom, you're gonna be fine.' You know, she was right."
Nahale, still fighting, had advice for anyone struggling through illness or injury.
"Don't let your illness or injury define you," she said. "My name is not Sgt. Kawaiola-'I-have-cancer'- Nahale. I am Sgt. Nahale. I will not let cancer beat me. I will not let cancer be my identity. Don't let it be yours. "