ARLINGTON, Va. – Many military members consider their service life-changing, but for 1st Sgt. John Melson, it was lifesaving — literally.
After doctors at Melson’s military entrance screening discovered a lump in his neck, he soon found himself on an operating table to remove a cancerous tumor that would have killed him within five years. An elite team of surgeons from across the country had to temporarily remove his carotid artery to excise the growth.
In 2004, after learning to speak again, Melson returned to the recruiting station and completed his enlistment into the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
It is no wonder that with his devotion to service, Melson — now Ranger, sapper, pathfinder, airborne, air assault, mountain qualified with nine deployments and five valor awards earned — is featured in the U.S. Army’s revival of the “Be All You Can Be” recruiting campaign.
“I told everyone that if I didn’t join the Army, I’d be dead,” he said. “So, you have that sort of loyalty because it saved your life.”
However, he acknowledged his sense of duty extended beyond his medical diagnosis after the 9/11 attacks.
“I thought if they could fly out of Boston, my hometown, then it meant they could come here and hurt any of my children, close friends, and family. I just felt so driven and pulled inside. I had to contribute to the war effort. I had to do it,” said Melson, now the senior enlisted technical adviser with the U.S. Army Futures Command Soldier Lethality Cross-Functional Team at Fort Benning, Georgia.
That advising role led to his involvement in the Army’s new recruiting campaign when his leadership chose him as an on-set technical adviser to help the Soldiers and actors understand and use the gear correctly while filming the commercials. During a break on set, he took the cast aside for an impromptu training session on the equipment, which caught the eye of the director and producer.
They decided his leadership and technical expertise were exactly what they needed to add to the realism and credibility of the campaign. But his leadership qualities are no cinematic gimmick. They are the core of who he is as a Soldier and noncommissioned officer, said Maj. Brandon Davis, Soldier lethality team operations officer.
“He emanates all that a senior NCO should be,” said Davis. “He has multiple valor awards and he has combat stripes from his wrists to his chevrons.”
Melson has been awarded four Army Commendation Medals, one Bronze Star Medal with V devices for valor, and two Purple Heart medals, among his many other decorations.
“But it’s not just about that. He would bend over backward to take care of Soldiers,” Davis said. “He’s the epitome of tough love — just how we would want our senior NCOs to lead.”
Melson began his career in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving from 1989-1992. After a 12-year break in service, he said he felt the unyielding call to return. After his bout with cancer, he enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2004 and almost immediately volunteered for his first deployment. Melson spent the next four years overseas with only short breaks between tours in Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq from 2004-2008. He also deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2015 and Kuwait in 2018.
“Stepping into that level of operational tempo — where we might be here today, but in less than a month, we can be in a combat zone — that sense of purpose is a whole new level,” Melson said. “Our decisions have impacts where it could be life and death, and other people’s lives are in your hands. That weighs on you differently.”
Melson’s intensity and passion are apparent in everything he does, from talking about his bulldogs to preparing Soldiers for combat, said Sgt. 1st Class Hector Umana, who was deployed with him under Special Operations Joint Task Force-A when he was a specialist with the 10th Mountain Division.
“He used to take time out of his day to drill with us on the Quick Reaction Force, even though he wasn’t even part of the same unit,” said Umana, the QRF team leader. “He would always say, ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but you as a leader have to make that decision and go with it.’”
That mentorship paid off Aug. 7, 2015, when two vehicle-borne IEDs detonated during Umana’s patrol.
“Thank God for him because, when I think to that day, I still made the right decision. All my guys came home, and it was just me being prepared by him,” said Umana, who almost 10 years later is reunited with Melson in his M-Day capacity as a member of the Georgia National Guard’s 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade.
Melson’s leadership traits and combat expertise led him to become an instructor and mentor. He served as a Ranger instructor at the Army National Guard’s Warrior Training Center and developed the Mississippi Army National Guard’s first Master Leader Course program – later becoming a full-time course instructor.
He now occupies a dual role on active-duty orders at Futures Command and as a traditional Army Guard member in the 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade, a unit with a mission to advise and assist the militaries of U.S. partners and allied countries.
“He’s at the SFAB using all that experience that he gained as an adviser in Afghanistan, making people better,” said Davis. “He’s here representing the National Guard and working on the Army’s top prioritization efforts. He represents the force, literally, in every form.”
Those prioritization efforts include the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System, goggles that combine night and thermal vision with a heads-up display comparable to a fighter pilot’s for enhanced situational awareness. Melson will be seen in the recruiting commercial instructing Soldiers on the system.
Melson credits his participation as a point of pride and notes that he is thankful to give back to the organization that gave him so much.
“Especially with the messaging, ‘Be All You Can Be,’ because I am. I am who I am today because of the opportunities that the Army afforded me, and one of those is life. The Army gave me my life back by fixing that cancer,” he said.
It also allowed him to achieve what Davis called a legendary career, and after 18 years, he doesn’t see an end in sight.
“I would have never thought I’d be a Ranger or a sapper, and I’m continually contributing to formations and helping to develop leaders,” Melson said. “It just helps feed me and keeps me going. There are still more people that I can help.”