Young Marine re-enlists after beating brain cancer
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 31, 2015
Jennifer Suarez had the world at her fingertips.
In 2006, the daughter of immigrants was living her childhood dream of becoming a Marine. She had traveled the world. Recently wed, she was five months pregnant with her first child. Everything was headed in the right direction.
It all came crashing down May 13. Suarez and her husband were out eating breakfast when the left side of her body went into a seizure that left her tiny frame contorted. Her husband tried to control her left hand; she almost broke his.
Suarez was taken to Camp Pendleton and later Balboa Hospital, where doctors found a golf ball-size tumor on her brain called an astrocytoma. Her husband burst into tears.
That started a roller-coaster ride for Suarez and her family that included birth, the child’s near-death, surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, loss of her dream job. She had to learn to walk again, and her marriage eventually failed. Through it all, the sergeant never stopped fighting.
Today, she has beaten her cancer and is back proudly wearing the uniform, a testament to her fighting spirit.
“Instead of asking, ‘Why me?’ I would think of the children that have this disease,” she said recently from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where she serves as the commanding officer’s driver at The Basic School. “How could I sit here saying, ‘Why me?’ when I’ve been given the best life. … There’s children who have cancer who are like a year old, or less. … I feel like I’ve done a lot in my 29 years.”
‘Everybody doubted me’
Suarez’s mother, Maria, immigrated to the states from El Salvador in 1970, and her father, Carlos, came from Ecuador 10 years later.
At school in Springfield, Va., she was very feminine, she recalled with a chuckle. She always wore pink and was into hair and nails. She took ballet and tap instead of playing sports.
Then in fourth grade, a classmate’s Marine father came in for career day. Suarez was enthralled by his story, igniting a love affair with the Corps that still burns bright.
Years later, as high school drew to a close, Suarez hadn’t decided on a direction for college and didn’t want to waste her parents’ money. She also knew she wanted to travel.
By all accounts, the Marine Corps was the most challenging service and had very few women compared with the other branches, she said.
“I decided I wanted to be the best of the best,” she said. “If I was going to do the military, I was going to do the hardest, the toughest, like I said, the best of the best, the few, the proud. … Everybody doubted me.”
Suarez enlisted at 17 and graduated boot camp in October 2003, feeling significantly “tougher” while managing to maintain her femininity, she said.
She graduated from communications school in the top 10 of her class and became a field wireman. She chose Okinawa, Japan, as her first duty station and fell in love with the small southern prefecture. She stayed through 2005.
Toward the end of her tour, she married. By the time she moved to Pendleton, she was pregnant.
“At that time, they told me I had a tumor,” she said, choking up. “I just couldn’t believe it because I had never suffered from headaches; I had never suffered from migraines; I was a top [physical training performer]. My scores were above and beyond.”
Doctors advised that if she tried to have a natural childbirth, she could have an aneurysm and die, so an emergency Caesarian section was performed almost two months early.
“I felt guilty that it was my fault that my son had to be born premature because I had cancer,” she recalled. “At that time, I put my life in God’s hands and I just prayed that my son would be born OK. … I just talked to God.”
Her son, Anthony, was born July 5 with a failing heart and lungs. Suarez and her family were told to perform an emergency baptism because he wasn’t going to make it.
“I felt like I was just dying inside,” she recalled. “At this point, I was like, ‘God, just take me now. I can’t do it anymore.’”
Miraculously, she said, Anthony recovered.
The new mother, however, had a long road ahead.
Doctors knew they couldn’t touch half of Suarez’ Grade 3 tumor — Grade 4 is considered terminal — in her motor cortex, or she would be paralyzed. They would have to blast it with radiation and chemotherapy after the surgery.
The 21-year-old went in for surgery on Sept. 25, 2006. When she awoke, she said the pain was immense, and her left leg was paralyzed.
Suarez refused to accept it and rejected the wheelchair she was given. She would dress, much as she had before, in high heels and skirts. She dragged her leg around with a walker.
At rehab, she steadily regained movement. Then one day, she woke up and her leg was fine.
“The doctors couldn’t believe it either,” she said. “It was a miracle, really.”
Suarez’ relationship with her husband was starting to show signs of buckling under all of the stress. And she was preparing for months of radiation followed by two years of nausea-inducing chemotherapy.
She still maintained a brave face, though she faltered from time to time. She broke down when she began losing her hair at the end of the radiation and had her mother shave her head. She gave in to anger one day in the post exchange when a child called her “sir.”
Suarez was devastated when she was forced to medically retire from the Corps as a corporal in 2007. Soon after, she began seeing a behavioral health counselor.
In 2010, while awaiting their second child, she said her husband left her. Suarez hit the gym to release her stress.
“She’s very strong,” her mother said. “We’re very proud of her.”
Two years later, she decided she wanted to rejoin the Marines. Her cancer was in remission, and she felt good. First, she needed medical waivers for her knees, cancer and hypothyroidism, as well as for behavioral health. Then she had to pass a physical fitness test and write a letter on why she wanted to come back.
Clearing all the hurdles, she re-enlisted on active duty in March 2013 and was soon hand-picked as the commanding officer’s driver based on her work ethic and commitment to completing every task, according to Col. Christian Wortman, commanding officer of The Basic School. Less than a year later, she was promoted to sergeant.
“Service before self encompasses Sgt. Suarez in a nutshell,” Wortman wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Sgt. Suarez has faced decisions and obstacles that many hope to never encounter yet she still rises above her challenges and continues to serve her family and the Corps to the best of her ability. Sgt. Suarez exemplifies the type of Marine all should strive to emulate with her attitude and determination. She truly lives our motto ‘Semper Fidelis.’’’
Wortman said Suarez has used her experiences to mentor others and is a role model for Marines and families undergoing hardships.
“I can’t believe my own story sometimes,” Suarez said. “I’m so blessed coming back in the Marine Corps… I can’t imagine myself anywhere else but here, wearing this uniform.”