Soldier’s unwavering optimism a powerful weapon in cancer fight

Story by T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs

The plan is set: Sgt. 1st Class Patrick J. Kelly of Company M, 244th Quartermaster Battalion, 23rd Quartermaster Brigade, will lace up his boots, throw a 50-pound rucksack over his shoulders and march around Fort Lee, Va., until he has covered 25 miles.

He will repeat it the next day.

And the next.

And the next.

“Obviously, when I hit 75 miles on day three, the pace might slow a little bit,” the 35-year-old said of what might be called a 100-mile gut check. “But I will finish in the allotted time.”

Kelly’s 100-mile road march, planned for June 1-4, may sound straightforward, even simple for a fit Soldier, but his quest can’t be summed up in one brush stroke. Kelly is a cancer survivor.

Born in New Hampshire and raised mostly in Arkansas, Kelly said he joined the Army in 1993 to serve his country “and go (into) combat.” He enlisted as a combat engineer, a job that is essentially an infantryman with construction skills. He served until 1998, but donned the uniform again after 9-11.

“That was my chance to go to combat.”

Kelly would complete one tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan, not as a combat engineer, but as an automated logistical specialist.

“They wouldn’t let me go 12B because of the stop-loss,” he said, referring to the program that prevents Soldiers from changing jobs or leaving the service.

After returning from Afghanistan in the spring of 2010, Kelly, the picture of health, suffered what he thought was a heart attack — it wasn’t. He was eventually diagnosed with cancer — splenic marginal zone lymphoma, to be exact — a rare form of lymphoma that affects the B-cells of the spleen.

“I have an 85-percent remission rate with chemotherapy treatment, but once in remission (and not undergoing treatment), I have a 95-percent chance of the cancer coming back again. It could be one year or 70 years, it just depends,” said Kelly, who is currently in remission.

“They don’t know why it comes back or why you can’t get rid of it,” he added. “I have to go to the doctor every three to six months for the rest of my life to make sure that I am not getting sick again.”

Even with such a vague prognosis, Kelly’s thoughts turned first to his career as a Soldier.

“My first response was, ‘Am I going to get kicked out of the Army?’ I never once pitied myself or thought I was going to die, and believe it or not, most of it was because of my wife,” Kelly said. “I looked at her right when he (the doctor) told me, and she said it was ‘just a speed bump.’”

Kelly saw it that way as well, and that attitude made an impression on Sgt. William Strickland, one of his battle buddies in Afghanistan. Strickland was struck by his friend’s disregard for “speed bumps” and his unwavering optimism.

“That’s what helped him get through this ordeal,” said Strickland, who is stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. “He was never at a point in which he was downtrodden. He even joked about it. He kept the same attitude he had before he got the diagnosis.”

Still, living with cancer is arguably more than a speed bump. Consider Kelly’s physical condition: At 170 pounds he looks healthy, but has no immune system, occasionally can’t feel his legs and suffers from atrophy in his left shoulder. He can still, however, do the maximum number of pushups.

“I don’t let anything slow me down,” said Kelly, who is now an advanced individual training platoon sergeant said, noting he has to spend more time working out.

Kelly must ingest 10 pills and vitamins daily to manage the pain and stay healthy throughout his 12-hour shifts — details that prompted his unit leaders to consider pulling him off platoon sergeant status.

“As a leader, you kind of look at your footprint to see what kind of changes you need to implement,” said Company M 1st Sgt. Terry Williams. “When I first heard about Sgt. 1st Class Kelly, I thought I might keep an eye on him and would possibly have to move him or try to find a different job for him. But I tell you, within the first couple of weeks of knowing him, I knew right off the bat I’m not going to lose this guy. I’m going to fight to keep him no matter what.”

All who know him agree that Kelly is a “glass half full” kind of guy. While he understands the seriousness of his disease, he doesn’t give in to the negativity, doom and pity often associated with it. That was evident during the summer of 2010, while he was undergoing his second chemotherapy treatment.

While with the battalion commander, the sergeant major and his first sergeant at a unit function, he felt queasy and tried to leave. Things went downhill from there.

“I tried to exit the room so I wouldn’t throw up on anybody,” he recalled. “I didn’t make it.”

Some laughed and thought he “couldn’t hold his liquor.” The battalion commander knew about his condition, however, and admonished the onlookers, telling them about Kelly’s illness.

“I’m not going to say people felt sorry for me, but people were crying and upset,” Kelly remembered. “I’ve come to find out that when you have this disease and you bluntly break it to somebody, they don’t know how to react.”

Most people, he continued, feel sorrow, sympathy or pity. It’s something he wants no part of.

“Most people with cancer who I know don’t want to be treated like that,” he said. “They want to be treated like a normal human being, just like anyone else.”

Although he decries special treatment, Kelly is quite open with his condition and wants to help others learn to cope. The vomiting episode helped turn him in that direction, in fact.

“When the battalion commander (made his announcement), I thought, ‘I probably should tell people and use how I dealt with it and how I’ve maintained a positive attitude to inspire people through the different hard times that they have,’” he said.

The road march is an extension of that desire to help. Kelly aims to raise money and awareness for cancer research, and send a clear message that anything is possible.

“If you have cancer and can do a 100-mile road march, then I can get up and go to PT when I’m sore or I’ve got family problems,” said Kelly, referring to the event. “There’s nothing that can’t be achieved if you put your mind to it.”

It’s a cliché for sure, Kelly admitted, but an accurate expression of his outlook in his battle against cancer.

“I can’t wait to do the march and can’t wait to achieve the 100 miles,” he said. “I tell everybody whether I raise a dollar or $100,000, I’m doing 100 miles. I have a saying with my Soldiers, ‘If Sergeant Kelly tells you something, you can take it to the bank. It’s going to happen.’”

  • Patrick J Kelly`

    I am doing this road march to raise money for cancer research my website is all proceeds go directly to american cancer society

  • Karen Dunbrack

    I think what your doing is a GREAT thing. My son is doing AIT @ FT. Lee now and was diagnosed with cancer in high school he was 18. He has had 2 operations and 26 treatments of chemo. He is doing great now cancer free since 2009. Since his cancer and recovery he has went on to play football in college and now is in the army. He still has to have the check-ups to. But for him to be in the US army and to have gone through what he has went through is a miracle. He loves the army , and I am so PROUD of him for the man he has become he has NEVER given up not even when it didn’t look good. Being in the army lets him prove to himself and to others that he is just like everyone else and can do anything he puts his mind to. He NEVER wanted to be known as the boy with cancer he just wanted to be known as Derek. I hope he gets to meet you at Ft. Lee he will be there until Aug. maybe he can even walk with you. I wish you and your family the best & lots of luck on your walk.