WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 12, 2011) Cpl. Austin Saunders, a gun team leader with Charlie Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga., admits he’s a bit of a competitive guy. He likes to reach his goals, whatever the odds; “mission complete” is his credo.
In March 2010, the odds seemed to stack up against him when at the age of 20 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. The devastating news came just two years into his tour with the Rangers.
“I’ve always focused on my short-term goals in order to accomplish my long-term goals. I like a challenge, and I like to win,” he said. “So when I was diagnosed with cancer, my first thought was -- this is going to interfere with my plans to get my Ranger tab and deploy with my guys.”
Saunders, a Grayson, Ga., native, set his sights on becoming a member of the regiment shortly after high school. At the time he considered it his long-term goal.
“I played a lot of sports while in school, so my competitiveness always kept me focused on being on the winning team. After high school I knew I wanted to be part of the ‘best,’ which lead me to joining the Army to be a member of the 75th,” he said.
When he found out about the cancer, to him, overcoming cancer became his short-term challenge.
“I was diagnosed February 2010, but it really didn’t hit me until I started chemo (therapy). Then I realized this is serious stuff,” he said. Saunders’ painful reality of cancer came in the form of five days of continuous, aggressive chemotherapy treatments administered every other week for five months at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
“The (chemotherapy) treatments I went through were pretty aggressive. Most patients over the age of 25 won’t be able to handle the high toxicity levels, but I pretty much made up my mind to go through whatever it takes to beat this,” he said.
The treatments Saunders received were clinical trials limited to patients with a history of physical fitness and mental toughness. Saunders was an ideal candidate based on his conditioning at the regiment.
“Before all this happened, I felt like I was moving steadily along in reaching my goal,” he said. “I was at the regiment, and working toward going through RASP (the Ranger Assessment Program) and then to Ranger School. My unit was gearing me up physically and mentally for it, I was so ready.
“When I was diagnosed (with cancer), I looked at it as yet another challenge to overcome. I took one day at a time. I just kept reminding myself -- I’m going to beat this, get my (Ranger) tab and deploy with my guys,” he said.
Saunders admits the treatment was the hardest thing he’s ever faced and his drive alone wasn’t all that pulled him through.
“My mom was there every day, she took care of all the details during treatment, so I could stay focused. My unit also called every day to get my status and check on how I was doing. The support I had from my family and the Regiment really helped me make it through each day,” he said.
Saunders underwent the chemotherapy sessions successfully, but still had a long road to assimilating back into his unit. Containing his eagerness to jump back into things with his remaining physical limitations was his next big challenge.
“His (Saunders) resolve after going through the treatment process has inspired many of the Rangers here, especially the younger guys in his squad,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Horsager, platoon sergeant, 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“Our biggest challenge was getting the paperwork through to clear him to do all the physical activities. He was so motivated and eager to press forward and fall right back into the tempo here,” Horsager said.
As the health clearances made their way back to the unit, Saunders wasted no time getting back after it -- eight-mile battalion runs with body armor and various combat related tasks, were things he missed and eagerly wanted to do as he knew this was the training he needed to ready himself for Ranger School. By February 2011, he was fully recovered and medically cleared to attend Ranger School.
“I have to admit surviving Ranger School is a whole lot easier than surviving cancer,” he said smiling. “Everyone says that it’s one of the toughest schools physically and mentally, and it is, but my unit prepared me for the physical challenge. The mental part was tough too, only because I knew that my unit was prepping to deploy and I knew I’d miss the deployment,” Saunders said.
“That’s what it’s all about -- training, staying mentally focused and getting your skills down to be a player on the best team out there (75th Ranger Regiment). I wanted to be with the team in that fight,” he said.
It’s been close to a year since Saunders arduous journey began and the prognosis is good. According to doctors at Emory, if the cancer does not return within one year, he has a 98 percent chance of enjoying the rest of his life cancer free.
“Here is someone who could have taken the easy way out,” said Horsager. “When (Saunders) was first diagnosed, he was offered to be medically discharged with benefits. He could have taken it and called it quits. He knew what he wanted. He endured an incredible hardship and sacrifice to be here. This is the type of guy you want on your team.”
Since Saunders recovery, he’s taken every challenge set before him and excelled.
“He (Saunders) got back to the regiment and we promoted him to corporal based on his leadership, motivation and willingness to lead men in the right direction. I see him moving far in his career. Whatever he sets his sights on he’ll get there. He’s an inspiration and a great motivator,” said Horsager.
Saunder’s long-term goal is to move up within the special operations community, and take on more challenges. Right now he’s working on a new short-term goal, serving as the senior gun team leader for the junior guys in his squad.
“I tell the young guys in the squad facing challenges, it could always be worse -- trust me,” said Saunders. “I try to show them the right way to do things through leading them in the right direction so they can say 'mission complete.'”