By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – It can be said roller coasters represent an opportunity for young people to revel in their youth.
For a newly enlisted Soldier in training here, however, the thrill ride represented an almost-certain death.
Pfc. Zachary W. Anderson was a mere five days from traveling with battle buddies to a popular James City County amusement park, riding one of its thrill rides and risking a probable lethal injury due to an abnormal growth in his brain.
“We were all supposed to be going to the Busch Gardens theme park,” said the Papa Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion Soldier of the trip planned in May of last year. The 21-year-old said he likely would have rode one of the meandering monsters because he didn’t know he was sick – “The g-force from the roller coaster,” he said doctors told him, “would have possibly killed” him.
Anderson’s ordeal began May 18, 2014, during a building evacuation while assigned to Bravo Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion. One night following the activation of fire alarms, he and his fellow Soldiers were instructed to clear the building and gather in an adjacent area for accountability.
“All I remembered was standing in formation, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up with my platoon sergeant and a paramedic by me. I had blacked out,” said the Michigan National Guardsman, noting Kenner Army Health Clinic had discovered the brain mass after further examination.
The tumor, roughly the size of a lime, was removed May 20 at Chesterfield County’s Johnston-Willis Hospital. Three days later – while Anderson’s fellow Soldiers rode coasters – tests on the growth proved it to be cancerous.
“I was told the tumor tested positive for a form of brain cancer called germinoma,” said Anderson. The germ cell tumor, which can be malignant or benign, may be differentiated into cells located in other parts of the body. It is curable.
Although the tumor was largely removed, some of it still remained, said Anderson. Chemo and radiation treatments were planned to remove the remaining cells. He received the therapies at Walter Reed Medical Center starting in July of 2014 – four rounds, five days a week, then two weeks off.
“I sat in a chemo chair for six hours a day, got drugs administered to me, then I would go back to my room and sleep,” recalled Anderson. “I was still in a training mentality, and I would want to go run or something, be active, but I had no energy to do anything. I felt helpless.”
Anderson’s 120 hours of chemo was followed by three months of proton therapy at the University of Pennsylvania. Those treatments ended last December. While receiving the treatments, he was offered a medical board – meaning he could depart the Army with a service-related disability.
Why wouldn’t Anderson return home and receive compensation for his health issues? His response was as unpredictable as a coaster ride.
“I took an oath to enlist and serve my country, and I wanted to fulfill the obligations I felt I had,” said Anderson. “I also knew the cancer was 100-percent curable, and it got cured. I thought why would I take a medical discharge and get out of the military when I can fulfill that contract. I wanted to stay in the Army and get back to training; to finish what I started.”
Anderson has been in remission since March 3 of this year. He returned to Fort Lee last month to resume has training as a 92Y Unit Supply Specialist. It is good to be back, he said.
“Papa Company is great, my platoon sergeant is great and so are my battle buddies,” he said. “It is a little different because I didn’t go to basic training with any of these battle buddies, but they still accept me, still watch my back as I would theirs.”
Among those watching his back is Papa Company battle buddy Pvt. Richard Cravens, who said Anderson’s optimism and openness about his ordeal lifted him in his first days at Papa when he longed for the strict discipline and pace of his basic training unit.
“His positivity gave me a better outlook on things,” said the 18-year-old from Blooming Grove, Texas. “He had cancer and all he could think about was coming back here to train. That made an impression on me.”
Anderson also had admirable words for his first unit – Bravo Company. He said leadership was “very supportive” during his hospitalization, noting the commander was often at his bedside until his family was able to travel here from Michigan. His Bravo Company cohorts didn’t forget him either. While he lay in a hospital bed on his 20th birthday last year, “I had about six battle buddies come to the ICU, and they all bought gifts from the company,” he said.
Family, friends and his units, said Anderson, all played a part in his recovery. He also said his decision to stay in the Army is rooted in a deep appreciation for his blessings. Those blessings are now included in a message of resiliency.
“No matter what life throws at you; no matter how bad it is, there’s always hope. Never give up and keep fighting,” he said.
Anderson plans to complete his training, serve the Michigan National Guard, attend the University of Northern Michigan and submit an application for ROTC.
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