Cancer-stricken colonel in command at inauguration

January 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — It is an honor carried out by the soldiers of the Army’s oldest infantry regiment: to salute the departing president as he leaves the nation’s capital, while helping welcome his replacement.

Stricken with a cancer that’s rare in the United States, it is an honor that Lt. Col. Jaime Martinez almost missed.

“This is a lethal cancer. Tumors grow in your head and neck and there is no easy way to attack it,” Martinez said, who credits the doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with saving his life. “They got me back in the fight in 100 days.”

On Tuesday, Martinez will command hundreds of soldiers from The Old Guard, who stand watch daily at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and bury the dead at Arlington National Cemetery, as they carry out their duties at the inauguration of a president.

Radio in hand, Martinez will guide his intensely polished and practiced soldiers through record-setting crowds to each assignment, ensuring they’re in place to carry the nation’s colors to the Capitol in the inaugural parade, and later, at the many inaugural balls.

Among their other ceremonial duties Tuesday: standing watch at Andrews Air Force Base to salute George W. Bush as he boards a military plane and leaves Washington behind.

Martinez, 44, grew up in Chicago and started his career in the Army 23 years ago after graduating from Eastern Illinois University. Enlisting as a private eventually led to an airborne combat jump into Panama, elevation to officer, a law degree and service on the personal staff of both Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Eight months ago, the paratrooper who fought insurgents in Iraq and battled Taliban gunmen to a standstill in the mountains of Afghanistan wasn’t sure he’d live long enough to see the next president inaugurated. On the same night he graduated from law school, he discovered a lump in his neck.

Within a week, he had become one of a handful of soldiers diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, a disease that’s uncommon in the United States but is found more often among people in central Asia, north Africa and China and has been linked to a diet of salt-cured fish and meat, according to the American Cancer Society.

The same virus that causes ordinary mononucleosis seems to play a role, too, but most people who get mono do not develop this cancer. Maj. Mark Roschewski, who treated Martinez at Walter Reed, said doctors there only see one or two cases a year.

“When a patient completes the treatment, it is too early to say they’ve survived,” Roschewski said. “Their cancer is no longer detectable, but it could come back. It has a high rate of relapse. Cured means remission, and that takes five years.”

While undergoing two rounds of aggressive therapy over four months, Martinez became a shell of the warrior who not only made it through the Army’s notoriously tough Ranger school, but later was picked to teach there. Sitting in a room at Walter Reed with a view of a parking lot in December, on the last day of his treatment, the chemotherapy had left Martinez with gray skin, a gaunt face and a raspy voice instead of his normally animated baritone.

“This recent battle tempered me with resolve that I did not know I possessed at the time,” he said. “I attest my survival to faith and the crucibles of combat that I have previously experienced.”

Martinez took command of the 4th Battalion of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — the formal name for The Old Guard battalion — in October, before his treatment was complete. Along with ceremonial duties, the unit will help provide security and medical care as a crowd that’s expected to measure in the millions gathers on the National Mall to watch Barack Obama deliver his first speech as president.

Martinez said he’s honored — “especially during wartime” — that the Army was confident he could return to duty and lead troops after his cancer fight.

“Life continues. I have no qualms and I am truly blessed with unbound opportunities and the privilege to serve,” Martinez said. “The hardest fights, I believe, are yet to come.”