Stripes spotlight: Type 1 diabetes can't stop this NCO, even during deployment

By STEVE LIEWER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 11, 2004

WüRZBURG, Germany — Staff Sgt. Mark Thompson had always been a PT stud.

So it surprised him on that sunny day in November 2000 when he got lightheaded early in his morning physical training.

“I went running with some first sergeants, and I almost passed out,” recalled Thompson, now 27.

Then serving with the 1st Infantry Division’s 4th Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery in Kitzingen, Thompson had a bright Army future.

He expected to soon add a staff sergeant’s stripe, a solid achievement for a 23-year-old who had enlisted 4½ years earlier almost on a whim after growing up in an Iowa farm town. He also had decided to become a re-enlistment counselor — a good job for a gregarious soldier with a quick smile and an easy rapport with troops.

At first Thompson wrote off his weakness as the same bronchitis that had plagued his wife, Beth. He’d been suffering from cold symptoms, too.

But that wasn’t all. Lately he’d had an unquenchable thirst. He’d also been dead tired, sleeping as many as 16 hours a day. His vision had been spotty, and he’d lost about 25 pounds from his 6-foot frame.

Thompson’s running mates ordered him to sick call. He went reluctantly.

“Had I gone running with people of my rank or less, I probably would have blown it off,” he said.

The medics gave him one blood test, then, a few days later, a second. Then they broke the news: Thompson had diabetes, an incurable, life-threatening disease.

“It blew my mind,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m 23 years old; I don’t have a disease!’”

Thompson had barely heard of diabetes, so he scoured the Internet for information. He learned that, according to the American Diabetes Association, diabetics’ bodies do not produce or properly use insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy.

About 18 million people have diabetes. More than 90 percent of them have Type 2, which is a resistance to insulin. Usually it occurs in middle age or later and is treated with changes to diet or lifestyle, and with medication.

Thompson learned that he had the much rarer Type 1 — formerly called “juvenile-onset diabetes” because it usually appears during childhood — in which the body stops producing insulin because of a defect in the autoimmune system. Untreated, the body’s blood-sugar level fluctuates wildly. That can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, nerve damage and blindness.

With Type 1 diabetes, he found out, “No matter what, you have to inject insulin.”

Needles suddenly became part of his life. Any food or exercise affected his blood sugar and required a shot, up to a dozen a day.

“I hated needles,” he said. “The first time I gave myself a shot, I had to psyche myself up for about five minutes.”

Later that year, Thompson would get the $5,000 insulin pump he now wears on his belt. Every nine minutes, it shoots a jolt of insulin into him through a tiny catheter that runs to his stomach. It’s made life much easier.

As much as the threat to his health, Thompson worried about the threat to his career. He had secured a spot in the Army’s Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course in January 2001, a requirement for the promotion to E-6 he had earned.

“I’d gotten my [staff sergeant’s] rocker,” he said. “I was so determined they weren’t going to take that away from me.”

He convinced doctors he could go. He did well at BNOC and, a few months later, was the honor grad, and earned the highest physical training score at career counselor school.

Still, his career remained in danger. A medical board in Washington would review his case and decide, finally, whether Thompson could stay in the Army.

His doctors backed his bid. In July 2002, the board agreed.

Thompson’s next big challenge came after the 1st Infantry Division got orders to Iraq for February 2004. He learned that Sgt. Maj. Scott Kuhar, commander of the division’s career counselors, had selected him to stay home. That bothered him.

“I didn’t want to be labeled ‘rear detachment’ every time we deployed,” Thompson said.

He found out the hospital in Tikrit stocked insulin. He learned that his downrange office had a refrigerator to keep his medicine safely cool — a big problem during Iraq’s blistering summers. He secured syringes and special cool pack for emergencies.

Thompson convinced Kuhar he could go. He was in Iraq from February to July, then came home to Würzburg for his turn in the rear. He was scheduled to return to Tikrit over this weekend and stay until the 1st ID returns to Germany next spring.

According to the division’s surgeon, Lt. Col. Michael Brumage, Thompson is the only insulin-dependent diabetic deployed with the unit in Iraq.

“I’m really impressed with the way he monitors [his diabetes],” Kuhar said. “He takes a very aggressive approach.”

Not that it’s been easy. Thompson said he’s been forced to use all of his contingency plans. His pump has broken twice, forcing him to return temporarily to his regimen of shots. And he’s had to use his cool packs several times during power failures.

Last week, Thompson played with his 16-month-old son, Kyle, and eagerly awaited his return to the combat zone.

Not so wife Beth, whose adjustment since his diagnosis has been almost as great as her husband’s. Now, on top of the usual deployment fears, she’s concerned about his disease.

“I worry about him more than he worries about himself,” she said.

Thompson freely discusses his diabetes, and is not shy about injecting himself in front of others.

“A lot of diabetics are bashful about the disease because it makes you different,” he said. “But I just keep it out in the open.”

“You would not know he had it unless he told you,” Kuhar said. “He’s a great NCO. He just did not let diabetes ever stop him from doing his job.”

For more about diabetes, see the American Diabetes Association Web site, www.diabetes.org.

Thompson isn’t worried about passing along diabetes to his 16-month-old son, Kyle. He said his Type 1 diabetes is not typically hereditary.

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