By Terrance BellMay 31, 2018
FORT LEE, Va. -- Ten-year-old Navila Rios has a thin frame, prominent eyes and a broad, warm smile. Her playful manner is accentuated by the tiny giggles she freely shares in conversation. Other than the brimless cap that sits atop her head, Navila is without visible signs of the cancer that invaded her world several months ago.
Her parents, Pfc. Neftali and Jennifer Rios, bear signs of a trauma lifted -- their faces aglow with life-affirming relief and optimism, and their demeanor alive with purposefulness and the reassurance they no longer have to glance over their shoulders to know somebody has their back.
Indeed, the visuals indicate calm where there was once crisis; where there was once fear during the course of a storm that metaphorically gave way to clear skies and warm rays of sunshine on recent news Navila's life is no longer in the balance.
"I think we're closer, more faithful," said Jennifer while describing the aftermath of the family's ordeal. "We've found the meaning of family and how to face life when things go wrong."
The troubles for the Rios family began last September when Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico and laid waste to much of the island, including their hometown of Cabo Rojo. The category 4 winds blew off roofs, overturned automobiles and uprooted power lines. Eight months later, Puerto Ricans are still reeling from its effects.
On the heels of that storm was the tempest of Navila's illness. She became feverishly sick and was debilitated by serious jaw pain three weeks after her 36-year-old reservist father had arrived at Fort Lee to undergo training as a wheeled vehicle mechanic.
Navila was eventually diagnosed with a sizable tumor in her belly. She was transported with her mom by ambulance to a medical center in the capital of San Juan, where she saw a specialist and received a battery of tests. Doctors pointed to something known as "Burkitt's," which initially elicited a "What the hell is that?" response from Jennifer.
She learned Burkitt's lymphoma or leukemia is a non-Hodgkin malignant disease mostly affecting children. A distinguishing characteristic is its aggressiveness. The cancerous cells in Navila were duplicating every 12 hours, said Jennifer.
Surgery was imperative, which meant the Red Cross had to be notified in order to excuse Neftali from military training and bring him home. For him, it was crushing to ponder all that was going on, all that could go wrong and the fact he was nearly 1,500 miles from consoling his daughter with a loving hug or reassuring her with words of encouragement.
"It was the worst news I received in all of my life," he said, upon learning the diagnosis and departing for Puerto Rico the next day. "I was crying and couldn't hold my emotions."
In the meantime, Jennifer did the best she could for Navila and her 7-year-old sister.
"I always tried to be very positive and strong for everyone," said Jennifer, noting she typically restrained her emotions in the presence of Navila "so she would not be scared or concerned."
The surgery confirmed it was Burkitt's, recalled Jennifer. Chemotherapy treatments started the next day and uncertainty loomed.
"It was very confusing," said Jennifer, her voice trembling. "I was thinking 'How're we going to deal with this? How're we going to fight with this? How can I be supportive for my daughter and the whole family?'"
Neftali, given the sudden course of events, also felt the sheer weight of the unknown. He found out the Cabo Rojo seafood restaurant where he worked for 20 years had been destroyed. He had no livelihood to return to and Puerto Rico was in the throes of a recovery that could take years, further lowering the odds of gaining immediate employment on an island with a 10-percent jobless rate prior to the hurricane.
Continued contact between Neftali and his Charlie Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Yolanda Walker, provided a ray of light amid the gloom.
"She told me I had two options," recalled the junior Soldier. "I could leave the Army (and eventually return when Navila was well) or I could fly with my family back to the U.S., continue my training and get my daughter treated at a hospital nearby."
The Rios' decision was made easier by the drawbacks of the devastation. The San Juan hospital was working on emergency generator power and service was inconsistent, said Jennifer. Additionally, the facility ran out of platelets, a blood component essential for clotting. These were factors that put Navila's treatment in jeopardy.
Left with no other courses of action, Neftali, Jennifer and Navila departed for the U.S. at the end of October, leaving the youngest child with grandparents. Arriving stateside, their immediate agenda was to find a hospital in the Richmond area to treat Navila, obtain lodging for Jennifer as she cared for her daughter, and resume Neftali's Army training. They chose Virginia Commonwealth University hospital for medical care, and Jennifer and Navila stayed in a nearby Ronald McDonald House.
In the meantime, Neftali -- a novice to English language skills -- returned to the Ordnance School and began to learn how the Army Family takes care of its own. Walker, who was handling her first class as a platoon sergeant, marshaled the empathy and compassion needed to deliver for the Soldier. She helped coordinate medical care, speaking with Neftali frequently and keeping leaders informed about his family situation.
"I think I did what any professional [NCO] would do," Walker observed. "The Soldier's home (Puerto Rico) was destroyed by a hurricane; he finds out his daughter has cancer; the Army is new to him, and he has difficulty with English. With all that going on, why wouldn't I do all I can to help this Soldier and his family?"
There also was an admiration for Rios, the individual, said Walker.
"We have a lot of junior troops who come through here with issues," said the nine-year Soldier. "Compared to many others, though, this Soldier never wanted to quit. Initially, going home to take care of his family was the only thing on his mind, but once we started working things for him, all he wanted to do was get back here to finish school and still ensure his family would be okay. We witnessed that commitment to doing what's right and taking responsibility. I think if we had a thousand Soldiers like Rios, we'd have an even better Army."
The chain of support below, above and sideways of Walker was just as impressive, said Neftali. He remembered sharing concerns about his situation in Richmond with Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio CardonaVega, his battalion CSM. "I told him we were alone here and we didn't know anybody," Neftali said. "(The CSM) replied 'Who said you are alone? You have a new family - the Army Family. You're not alone.'"
Support for Neftali and the reassurance he could confidently move forward to take care of his family culminated with a command visit to Navila's hospital room in early November. In addition to Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Eric L. Booker and CardonaVega, the entourage included Capt. Michael Clark and 1st Sgt. Mindy Shearin, the command team from Neftali's unit, Walker and several other NCOs. The uniformed gaggle disrupted the hospital's staid environ, turned the heads of staffers and concerned Jennifer, who wondered how she could have visitors without knowing anyone on the mainland.
Furthermore, she had already been the subject of leery eyes and insults during her visit. Constant questions like "Are you an American citizen?" and "Do you have a Social Security number?" made her feel like an alien despite Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory. Given her frame of mind and unfamiliarity with Army ways, she admitted being seriously afraid she was in some sort of immigration trouble.
"My reaction was 'Oh my God, what is this? Why are they here?'" she recalled.
The Soldiers came in, introduced themselves, asked the couple about Navila's health and condition, spoke with medical staff and offered reassurances of support. After their departure, Jennifer felt the family had a solid foundation upon which to lean.
"I was grateful -- 'happy' is a good word to use -- to know they were there for us; that we could depend on them," she said, becoming emotional and expressing how touched she was with the visit.
Neftali agreed. "Wow, I felt like I had a new family," he said. "I heard 'the Army is a family' many times. I now know it is true."
Navila went on with her treatment that lasted seven months. Neftali resumed his schooling with allowances to visit his family on weekends using a rental car financed by an Army Emergency Relief grant. The only nagging issue that persisted was the near-future return to Puerto Rico where the prospects of life without a job and inability to pay expensive medical bills loomed.
The Soldier approached Walker about a request to serve on active duty. She told him there were options but nothing could be guaranteed. The chain of command and others got involved. On Jan. 31, after receiving his certificate of completion for the Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic Course, Neftali got word his request for active duty service was approved. The next day, the scene switched to the Military Entrance Processing Station at Fort Lee where he received the Oath of Enlistment after signing a new enlistment contract.
Neftali's look of pride and elation while describing that moment spoke volumes.
"It's still a relief to know I don't have to worry about finances or insurance to keep up my daughter's treatments. It's true my journey into the active Army didn't happen in the best situation," said Neftali, "but it happened when it had to," interjected Jennifer, completing her husband's sentence.
The Soldier is now assigned to the 155th Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 53rd Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. His family is living in a quiet, tree-lined apartment complex just a short drive away from the installation. They are thankful for the support they received -- from their families at Fort Lee and Fort Eustis -- and the blessings of renewed hope following the team's defeat of Navila's invaders.
"The tumor is completely gone," said Jennifer with a beaming smile. "After the first round of chemo, she was without the bad cells so she was clear of leukemia. We just needed to fight the tumor, and the last scan they made on April 2 revealed she is cancer-free."
Navila will continue to have follow-ups as a precaution and does need surgery to fix a hernia she had from the initial biopsy. The prospects are good, however, that she and her family can live a normal life -- looking forward to clear skies and warm rays of sunshine, but fully equipped to weather future storms.