CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – An overseas deployment to an austere location where the heat, workload and OPTEMPO are high can be challenging. Knowing that a loved one back home has cancer can make a deployment seem even harder.
But family can help us get through the hard times. For those who serve in the military, our fellow brothers and sisters in arms can become just like family, having our backs when we are facing difficulties.
In January, shortly before Staff Sgt. Brandon Stafford was to deploy with his unit, his sister, Melissa Hjelle, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor deep in her right temporal lobe.
Stafford is a CH-47 Chinook helicopter flight engineer and flight instructor with the Minnesota and Iowa Army National Guard's B Company, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion). B Company is attached to Task Force Phoenix, which is deployed to the Middle East in support of U.S. Central Command's Operations Inherent Resolve and Spartan Shield.
"We're pretty close," Stafford said of his big sister. "She's trying to get through. She has her ups and downs each day."
On March 4, Melissa had craniotomy surgery to remove a large portion of the tumor. The remaining tumor needs aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
"I have recovered well from surgery and all deficits from surgery have resolved," said Melissa, who works as a regional traffic safety program coordinator in Minnesota. "I am experiencing fatigue and consistent nausea from radiation and chemotherapy, along with some other nuisance side effects. The most challenging part has been having to accept that although the mind wants to get up and go, the body can't fulfill that request."
While Stafford was in North Fort Hood, Texas, for predeployment training, his sister's situation weighed heavily on his mind. Back home, Melissa's hair began to fall out.
"We knew that it was inevitable for me to eventually lose my hair from treatment, and I thought I was prepared to handle it well," she said. "However, the morning that I began brushing my hair and it literally fell out in clumps left me an emotional mess. I shared with my family that the time had come, and I was making plans to shave the rest soon."
Her older brother, Sean Stafford, a retired Army National Guard master sergeant, planned a virtual hair-shaving party. He and his two sons, Jack and Marty, and Staff Sgt. Stafford, all shaved their heads as a show of support for Melissa.
"It was the perfect distraction," Melissa said. "The support given was adored, and my spirits were lifted. I am grateful for and love my family tremendously."
At North Fort Hood, Stafford started getting questions from his fellow Soldiers about why he had shaved his head.
"So I told them. And they were like, 'I want to do it, too.' Nobody was asked to do it. But they heard why I did it, and basically, they wanted to do it with me."
Fifteen Soldiers in Stafford's battalion then shaved their heads.
"I just kind of wanted to do my part to show her that it's all right and we are one big family," said Cpl. Justin Huberty, a CH-47 Chinook crew chief with B Company.
"My mom had breast cancer back in the day, so I kind of understood the whole process of chemo," said Staff Sgt. Derek Vollmer, a CH-47 Chinook flight engineer, also with B Company. "He mentioned that he was going to shave his head, and a bunch of people started joining in on the head-shaving to support his sister. And kind of to support my mom in the past, I decided to partake in the head-shaving. I am fair-skinned with red hair, so I really dislike the sun, so it was a big step for me to shave my head, but I think the reasoning outweighed the sunburns."
"We did a group picture and made a little Facebook post for her," Stafford said.
"At first, I had thought it was a regular crew photo and then quickly realized there was an unusual amount of bald heads!" Melissa said. "All of them! I was shocked and in disbelief once I realized the meaning of that photo! The timing could not have been more perfect; I was having my worst week of feeling ill yet and was experiencing a full-blown crying session to cope with it all when that photo arrived. That show of support and love humbled me right up and reminded me to put my boots on and move forward."
"It just shows how much everybody cares about one another here," Stafford said.
While Stafford worries about his sister, she also worries about him.
"It is never easy, and with each deployment ceremony that my family has experienced, they only get tougher," she said. "The daily worry is always present, the prayers of safe returns for the entire crew become more frequent and intense, and time feels to pass slower as we await the welcome-home ceremony. His deployment is my constant reminder and fresh perspective that we can all do hard, we will get through it, and we will thrive if we do it together."