Soldiers faced another enemy — cancer — in Iraq
January 22, 2004
Troops in a war zone face danger daily. But two Germany-based soldiers in Iraq discovered a different kind of enemy on the front lines: cancer.
Staff Sgt. Michael Snyder, from Illesheim, had been in Iraq since February when he felt a lump in one of his testicles. By August, the lump had turned into an agonizing discomfort.
“We knew something was wrong the whole time,” the 24-year-old soldier said.
Following two visits to different doctors downrange, a urologist used ultrasound to confirm that the now hardened lump was cancerous.
Snyder’s wife, Vanessa, remembers the November phone call.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m coming home. ... I have cancer and I need to be operated on in a certain amount of time,’” she said. “That was Friday night. He came in Sunday morning.”
Snyder’s testicle was removed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Since December, the Snyders have been commuting from Illesheim to the medical center — a trip of about 170 miles one way — for his chemotherapy to kill the cancer that has now spread to his abdomen. Sometimes they make the trip in one day, other times they stay in the Fisher House at Landstuhl.
About two weeks a month, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Michael Snyder sits hooked to an intravenous drip in the chemo room. The TV is on in the background, playing a movie or tuned to American Forces Network. Some patients, weak from the drugs, are asleep in their recliners.
Sitting on the other side of the room, joking with nurse Pat Benedict, is Sgt. Michael Bernquist. Bernquist, 23, discovered a lump in one of his testicles last June, while his Kitzingen-based unit was deployed to Iraq.
“I just happened to find it because I was doing my monthly exam,” Bernquist said. “That’s one thing I realized after [getting] cancer ... that over 75 percent of people in my unit do not know what a monthly exam is. I was taught this stuff in ninth grade, and I’ve done it ever since.”
In Bernquist’s case, an ultrasound did not indicate anything more than a fatty cyst. But the lump was enlarging. Although he was not experiencing any pain, by August he knew he had to do something.
“But I was on the verge of leaving [Iraq],” Bernquist said. “I was already in Kuwait waiting for my plane ride back to Germany.”
After he went on leave, he was finally able to get the help he needed and following a second ultrasound, his fears were confirmed.
“[On] Oct. 15, I had my ultrasound at 1300. At 1600, I was already getting a phone call from Dr. [Lt. Col. Bennett] Stackhouse here at Landstuhl,” Bernquist said. “He said, ‘We’ve read your ultrasound … and you need to be here, like, now.’ ”
The impact of it all did not strike him until after the surgery. As he awoke, he saw his platoon sergeant standing at his hospital bed. Then, later that night, while talking to his mother, it sank in.
“She started crying and then it hit me,” Bernquist said, “and I got emotional, too. My chain of command has been really supportive through this; it’s weird to come from downrange and get something like [this.]”
Like Snyder, Bernquist’s cancer has spread to his abdominal region and there are traces in his lungs. According to their doctors, both soldiers’ prognoses look good, however.
Bernquist will remain on chemotherapy until the second week in February and continues to stay upbeat, cracking jokes with nurses and fellow patients.
As far as the immediate future, both men plan to stay in the Army and hope their stories can help make other soldiers aware.
“I knew about the exam, but I never did it,” Snyder said. “It’s a good thing [to do] because I never expected that so many young people had cancer.”