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'We all still believe we're under oath and we want to help'

It was two weeks before Christmas when Greg Jacobik got the call.

“I have a son dying from cancer, and I heard you help veterans,” a man on the other end of the line told the retired Air Force sergeant major.

The caller, Barry Blount, was desperate. His son, Matt Blount, a 30-year-old former combat medic who took part in the invasion of Iraq, was battling not one, but two forms of cancer.

Matt Blount’s doctors at the local Veterans Affairs hospital had just sent him home to die. But Barry Blount, a retired Army command sergeant major, had heard through word of mouth about a new grass-roots organization to help veterans. He wasn’t ready to let his son go.

“It was a cry of help,” Barry Blount said. “I had no earthly idea what they would do.”

Neither did Jacobik.

“At first, I said, ‘Why are you calling me? I’m not a doctor,’” he said.

As the men talked, Jacobik understood what Barry Blount wanted — a listening ear, ideas, connections to others who might be able to help his son find treatment. That conversation was the first of many the two men would have in the coming months, as Matt Blount’s family raced to save his life.

“If you would like something specific to pray for, pray that ... I will succeed in fighting this long enough for me to watch my daughter leave for her prom, to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, and see my first grandchild."
- 2nd Lt. Matt Blount

After the Vietnam war, worried by calls from his former soldiers who weren’t receiving the proper care, Otto Fox fought for better benefits for veterans. And now, a new generation of battle-scarred veterans was coming home after 10 years of war in the Middle East and facing the same litany of physical and emotional problems.

“I remember having to stand in front of my men and telling them, ‘I’m not going to leave anybody behind,’ ” Fox said. “That’s the way I feel about all veterans.”

In September 2011, Fox, Jacobik and a half-dozen other former servicemembers gathered for lunch at a Jack’s fast-food restaurant in Pell City, Ala. Some had fought in Vietnam, and one in Korea. All were members of local chapters of service organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Disabled American Veterans. All were worried that local veterans were falling through the cracks.

The men decided to form Military Assistance Personal Support, or MAPS.

Their group would be different from other service organizations. No officers, only a board of directors. No dues, only donations. None of the red tape that restricted larger service organizations from getting immediate help to veterans.

In the weeks that followed, they spread word about MAPS with ministers, police, elected officials, the Red Cross, and the local hospice.

“We were saying, if you come across a veteran that needs help in anything, whether it’s leaves raked or gutters put up, to call us,” Fox said. “And the phone has been ringing off the hook.”

Barry Blount’s call was one of the first that MAPS received.

Matt Blount, who lived near Pell City in Jacksonville, Ala., enlisted after high school and became a combat medic. Within a few years, he found himself heading to northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, taking part in one of the first armored airlifts into a combat zone.

In late April 2003, during the first weeks of the war, he was part of a group flown into Kurdistan, rolling off C-17s in the middle of the night somewhere near Irbil. The unit’s orders were to march south into the city and then on to Kirkuk, home to a Republican Guard airfield that, the soldiers had been told, was stockpiled with chemical weapons and filled with Iraqis ready to fight the Americans.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Troy Tarazon was a private under Blount’s command.

“He showed no fear — none,” Tarazon said. “He was cool, level-headed, collected. He was the youngest of us there and he acted like he had years of experience, but he was just a 21-year-old kid leading two of his friends into battle.”

The brigade found little opposition in Irbil. With gas masks ready, they rolled into Kirkuk, but instead of an armored battalion and weapons of mass destruction, they found Republican Guard troops who quickly surrendered and turned over their weapons.

During their six months in Iraq, Matt was the primary medic for a mortar platoon, taking part in often bloody daily combat operations — patrols, raids, traffic control points — and at one point was caught in the front lines of a 30-hour firefight. He also provided medical care to Iraqis, spending long days vaccinating women and children at a health clinic in Kirkuk.

After he came home to Alabama, Matt Blount told his father he wanted to stay in the military, but not as a medic.

“He said that he had too many nightmares from Iraq,” Barry Blount said. “He second-guessed himself after every one of the patients left him after the battlefield. He said, ‘Dad, I can’t live that kind of life, wondering if I did the right thing every night.’ ”

His father encouraged him to enroll in ROTC at nearby Jacksonville State University. Matt Blount studied criminal justice, eventually graduating summa cum laude in 2010, finishing in the top 5 percent nationally of his ROTC class. But he was never commissioned.

In November 2009, six months after he got married, doctors discovered Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer of the bone and soft tissue that is found most frequently in children and teenagers, but rarely in adults. He underwent chemotherapy chronicling his treatment on his CaringBridge.org site.

In May 2010, his daughter, Audrey, was born.

Four months later, Matt Blount underwent a stem cell transplant, using his own stem cells, and a year after his original diagnosis, he announced that his cancer was in remission.

But the next summer, doctors diagnosed Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a condition Barry Blount said may have been triggered by Ewing’s sarcoma.

On July 27, 2011, Matt Blount wrote:

“In an earlier conversation with my brother he said “I doubt that I could go through what you have done. You are a braver man than I.”

I told him no, really I am not. It’s not about bravery. I asked him what he would be willing to go through to stay with his wife? To see his children grow up, to live ... I know he would take a bullet for any of them. Go to hell and back if it meant he could stay with them just that little bit longer.”

By August, all detectable traces of the leukemia were gone, and doctors began planning for a bone marrow transplant.

The next month, the sarcoma came back.

Matt’s treatments for leukemia, which remained in remission though he was not declared cured, were put on hold and he was taken off the bone marrow transplant list.

On Nov. 20, he wrote:

“If you would like something specific to pray for, pray that ... I will succeed in fighting this long enough for me to watch my daughter leave for her prom, to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, and see my first grandchild. That is pretty specific, but what I must endure with my health is a task and trial the Lord will allow me to go through for His reasons and His reasons alone.”

By the end of the year, the VA said there was nothing more it could do for Matt.

Shortly after Matt was declared incurable, Barry called Jacobik, hoping MAPS might know other veterans or doctors who could help with more aggressive or experimental treatment.

The two men talked and prayed together almost daily.

“[Barry] talked to me one on one and asked, ‘When do I quit? It’s obvious my son is dying, but when do I stop having hope?’ ” Jacobik said. “I said, ‘You push that wheelbarrow as far as you can, and when you get to the end, you’ll know.’ ”

In the meantime, Matt’s family researched Ewing’s sarcoma online. What they found kept pointing them to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a research hospital where potential patients could expect to be on a waiting list for months before being admitted.

Because of the rarity of his disease, Matt was immediately accepted for treatment and told to come to Houston for testing.

Since the VA had determined that nothing else could be done for Matt, his veterans benefits would not cover his medical expenses at MD Anderson, his father said. His family, financially stretched thin after years of Matt’s illness, couldn’t afford the treatment, much less the cost of the trip to Texas.

MAPS stepped in. Otto Fox paid for airline tickets for Matt and his wife, Melinda, to fly to Houston.

“I got a call about a veteran needing help and that’s all I needed to know,” he said.

Other veterans took donations and gave them $400 in spending money for the trip, and contacted another veterans’ group in Houston, which also collected money for the couple and helped transport them to and from the hospital.

Matt flew to Houston on Jan. 16, 2012, for testing at MD Anderson. When he flew back to Birmingham a week and a half later, an upbeat group of 30 or so family members, friends, veterans and local media was there to welcome him.

Soon after he got off the plane, his cellphone rang. It was MD Anderson, and test results had come back. His cancer had spread, and doctors wanted him to return immediately for treatment.

Matt flew back to Houston within hours, without leaving the airport or seeing his daughter, who had remained at home during his trip.

In mid-February, after weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, he went back home to his family’s farm in Jacksonville, Ala. MD Anderson, his last hope, had said there was nothing more it could do.

In the weeks that followed, Matt was confined to his bed. The once 175-pound soldier had wasted to 85 pounds, and a tumor on his spine had left him paralyzed from the stomach down.

He made videos and wrote letters for his daughter to open on milestone occasions in the years to come — her first day at school, high school graduation, her wedding day.

He spent an afternoon planning his funeral with his two brothers, so his wife wouldn’t have to do it after his death.

In early March, during a bedside ceremony, he was promoted to second lieutenant, the rank he would have been given had he been commissioned after ROTC. His brother, a second lieutenant, administered the oath and his father gave him the first salute.

Matt was ready to die, knowing he had tried every treatment option possible. But his family wasn’t ready for him to go.

“I would trade places with him in a heartbeat,” his father said. “I’ve lived a good life, but he’s got a wife. They never really had a honeymoon. They never really got to know each other. He’s been sick almost the entire time they were together.”

Matt died on March 10, surrounded by his family.

In an effort to pay down his medical bills – which, as of early March, included a $189,000 bill from MD Anderson — donations poured in to the family, and local organization and the city of Pelham, where Matt’s parents live, held fundraisers. By early June, Matt’s medical expenses had been reduced to about $4,500, and any donations left after those expenses are paid will be used to start a college fund for his daughter, Barry said.

MAPS, which formally incorporated as a nonprofit in March, has also continued to raise money for the Blount family.

Fox was eventually reimbursed for the money he spent on Matt’s flight to Houston, via donations from local chapters of veterans’ service organizations.

The publicity surrounding Matt’s case has led to a flood of other inquiries to MAPS from veterans across the region who need help. Responding to those requests has become almost a full-time job for some members, who Jacobik said didn’t anticipate the depth of veterans’ needs in their county.

He compared MAPS to the wingmen or battle buddies of the active-duty military.

“We all took an oath to serve the United States of America,” he said. “But when we’re out of uniform, we all still believe we’re under oath and we want to help our brothers and sisters, in uniform and out.”

Barry said MAPS had provided his family with “a sense of comfort that you’re not in this boat alone.”

“Matt just wanted a fair chance in life, but the Lord has a reason for this and maybe in my lifetime, we’ll see it,” he said. “But in the meantime, it’s letting us know there are other people out there who want to help.”

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

 

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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2012

 





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