When the Going Gets Tough
By Lt. Col. Parker Wright, National Air and Space Center, Signals Analysis Squadron
/ Published May 17, 2011
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --
I'd like to introduce you to a remarkable Airman. I've asked him for permission to share this chapter of his personal story so that you can get a glimpse of what I've witnessed over the past several months.
Capt. Chris Trobough is an engineer assigned to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center. As a native of Alabama and a recovering Auburn fan, we had an instant rapport when I joined the NASIC this past summer. We bumped into each other for the first time as he was headed out of the building to physical therapy for a nagging sports injury to his left calf.
About a month later, Chris scheduled some time on my calendar. I knew it was going to be bad when he walked in and shut the door. He delivered the shocking news that he had a particularly nasty form of cancer. About the only bright spot was that the cancer was localized in his left leg. I'll admit to crying at the magnitude of Chris' news. We talked about some pretty heavy topics, and we shared some quiet time. From the very beginning, I was struck by his inner peace and strength of character.
Chris flew down to Houston to see a specialist who prescribed an aggressive schedule of chemo therapy. When he got back, I sat with Chris and his wife, Caroline, as the oncologist (one who studies tumors) talked them through the process. They were very brave and remained optimistic in the face of the daunting challenge ahead of them.
Chris was given week-long, high-dose treatments of chemo four time during a three-month period. He checked into the hospital for his second dose of chemo the day his wife checked-in to deliver their second daughter. Her arrival was perfectly timed--just what they needed to sustain their hope. Chris ate his Thanksgiving meal at the hospital while fighting severe nausea. By the time he started his fourth chemo treatment, he was weak, mentally exhausted, and tired of sitting in the hospital. But he persevered and gutted it out.
By this time, Chris had lost his hair and 25 pounds, and walked with a severe limp. Unfortunately, the heavy chemo did not shrink Chris' tumors; fortunately, the cancer had not spread beyond his leg. When the specialist suggested a "wait-and-see" approach and cautioned against surgery, Chris and Caroline didn't blink--they went all in. Chris wasn't going to sit back and give up. They made the tough choice to undergo surgery.
When I told Chris that we'd help him get moved off base to a single story house at the government's expense, he said he didn't want any special treatment. I explained that it was the least we could do, and we were able to get Chris moved quickly so they could get settled before his surgery. The base agencies and privatized housing office were very helpful. They are to be commended. It's nice to know red tape and long waits can disappear when we really need it to.
Just days before his surgery, Chris sent me the following note: "Part of my fight with cancer will be declared a victory on Monday, March 21. I will be having surgery to amputate my left leg at mid thigh. Although this is a huge, life changing event, it is actually an exciting new beginning. My family and I are optimistic and looking forward to the new challenges this will bring." What a remarkable attitude!
When we visited with Chris the day after his surgery, he greeted us with a warm smile, a sense of humor, and a renewed determination to beat his cancer. His first question was how he should wear his uniform before he gets his prosthetic leg. I wish we could all be as committed. He joked about his new weight loss program--he dropped 35 pounds in a single day! I sensed that Chris and Caroline were as hopeful as I had seen them in months. There is a difference between happiness and joy. Chris has been joyful throughout, but he was definitely happy after the surgery.
Chris is at home recuperating. He's told me all about his prosthetic leg which will allow him to run again. In fact, he and his extended family have committed to running the Air Force Marathon 10K in 18 months. He has another round of chemo on the horizon, lots of physical therapy to learn to walk again, and he will meet a Medical Evaluation Board down the road. No one knows what the future holds (for any of us), but I'm confident that Chris will continue to live his life with courage.
Chris believes he's going through this struggle for a reason. I believe it's to set an example for us. There are many take-aways that we can learn from Chris' battle. Here are a few of mine.
Invest in spiritual preparedness. Chris' faith has been indispensible in his fight. It is the bedrock of his strength. It didn't start when he found out he was in trouble; it started years earlier. The lesson is this: invest now in spiritual preparedness so that you are equipped to endure when the storms of life hit. Don't let the smooth sailing of today obscure the certain rough waters ahead. General George C. Marshall advised, "I look upon the spiritual life of the soldier as even more important than his equipment ... the soldier's heart, the soldier's spirit, the soldier's soul are everything. Unless the soldier's soul sustains him, he cannot be relied upon and will fail himself and his country in the end." Don't forget to put the first thing first.
Take care of your family. Caroline Trobough is an incredibly strong lady. She has juggled the many demands on her with an uncommon grace. Chris is blessed to have her as the mother of his two beautiful girls. She has been his indispensible partner in this ordeal. We ask a lot of our loved ones. We ask them to endure long hours, deployments, and frequent moves. It's easy to take their sacrifice for granted. We shouldn't. We must build strong relationships that can endure hardships. There's very little in life you can do alone. You are going to have to rely on your friends and family to sustain you at some point. Don't ignore them now.
Keep your perspective. Chris' spectrum of good and bad shifted dramatically when he learned of his cancer, and he has been able to re-cage to a new reality. Chris knows that each day is a gift, and he savors them. Life altering events have the unique ability to bring perspective; however, it shouldn't take a crisis to remind us of the important things in life.
Keeping the right focus starts with a good attitude. It is easy to become frustrated by the minor things, and we often complain about the smallest of inconveniences. Do your work and do it well, but when the paperwork, suspenses, taskers, and reports begin to crowd out the joy in life, step back and remember there are more important things in life. Be thankful that your day is filled only with small problems; that means you're not facing any big ones.
Command is a privilege. It's not hard to forget you're a commander at NASIC. It's more than guidons and Articles 15, and we are more than staff officers. The never-ending staff work, short-notice suspenses, and meeting after meeting can easily mask why we're really here. I cherish what little we have been able to do to help ease Chris and his family's burden. It hasn't been much, and it's been so easy. But it has been a priority. I always enjoy it when Chris walks into my office so I can clear the decks and focus on the important issues.
We don't always know why bad things happen to good people. Most of the time, it's completely out of our control. All we can do is make the most of the cards we're dealt. Chris has done that. Chris is fighting for his life; it is how he's doing it that is so extraordinary. The way he has handled this is a testament of his character and a witness of his convictions. I've never heard Chris complain, and he has never focused on himself. Chris has never let fear take hold. Chris knows that his cure is beyond his own strength, but he's doing his part to beat it. He asks that we don't feel sorry for him because he doesn't feel sorry for himself. Chris' attitude, courage and perseverance are an inspiration for us all.
I've had the opportunity to witness Chris' strength and courage up close. I wrote this in hopes that you might be as blessed as I have been over the past several months watching Chris battle cancer. When Chris returns to work in the coming days, I invite you to swing by his office and meet this remarkable Airman--you'll be glad you did.