Dear Master Sergeant Dremel,
Honestly, I just did a little stalking and found out that you retired from the military some time ago, but I will always remember you as Master Sergeant Dremel (“like the tool” you would always say, yet I had never heard of Dremel tools). And, in fact, I will always remember you.
I won’t blame you if you don’t remember me. I was one of a few young airmen that passed through your office at the advanced Russian school at DLI. Sometime in 2008 I failed the Arabic DLPT and began the long process of reclassifying to another job. My friend (who had failed out of Arabic with me but also spoke Russian) had been sent to work in your office as an aide. He put in a good word for me (because I was tired of sweeping sidewalks and raking sand, literally) and you requested a second aide to help clean up and organize a few things around your office.
I was feeling pretty down at the time, but this isn’t a story about how I was thinking of suicide and you talked me out of it (as the title might suggest). I had signed up with the Air Force to get the $12,000 signing bonus and I felt that the new Arabic test was broken and I had been cheated out of my bonus. I knew that I had the option of getting out of the Air Force at that point, and I was seriously considering pursuing that option.
I will always remember how kind and sincerely caring a person you are. I still remember the story you told about how, at another location, you and a few other guys were concerned about a dangerous section of road that the administration was not taking proper care of–the road required some safety markings (a crosswalk, if I recall correctly) and after months of fighting for the markings to be painted no action had been taken. You and your cohorts obtained the necessary supplies and painted the markings yourselves to prevent further injury at that location.
Similarly, you saw that I was in need of a mentor and you stepped up. I will always remember the day you asked me about my plans for the future and I told you I was planning on getting out. You listened and then, in a few more words, asked me to reconsider and give the Air Force another shot. You talked about the many benefits, to include education and health care, that I would be throwing away, and you appealed expertly to my logic and sense of responsibility.
In my mind, the military represented something I didn’t want to do. I felt wronged by the system, had a deep disdain for all of the running and physical exercise required, and didn’t feel comfortable with the military culture. However, your words convinced me to give it another chance.
Within a year your actions brought me tears of gratitude, and I am sorry that it took me this long to reach out to you and let you know what kind of impact you had in my life. Let me tell you the full story.
I had been doing very well in the Arabic program. I was, in fact, near the top of my class. I was selected to study for a month in Egypt. While I was away at Egypt, on 7 February 2008, my wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl we called Sophie.
Sophie was the light in my life. We had another son, but he was my step-son and as much as I treated him like my own, this was my own spawn. She was beautiful. She was happy. She made everyone around her happy.
By the time I wound up in your office she was barely half a year hold. Late December of that year, less than two months after you convinced me not to pursue an early exit from my contract, I got a call from my unit superintendent who informed me that a slot had opened up for “some computer job” and, if I wanted it, I would need to report to the new training by the first week of January.
I took the job and after the training, in May of 2009, we trekked across the country from Monterey, CA to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC.
Everything was going pretty well. I still didn’t enjoy most aspects of military life, but it was nice having everything taken care of. In addition to your encouragement to give the Air Force another chance, I had the attitude that a job is a job and having a good one was better than not having one.
By October that year the first signs that something was wrong began showing. We didn’t notice at the time, but in hind sight it’s pretty clear.
She had started walking, running a little, and growing more and more confident in her movements. Then, out of nowhere, she reversed progress. She wanted to hold hands more. She used furniture and walls to steady herself. Her head was almost always cocked to one side.
It took us another month and a half before we were concerned enough to get an appointment with her pediatrician. The appointment was set for Wednesday, 16 December 2009.
Her doctor, Dr. Barnes, wasn’t too concerned on the surface. She thought it could be a nutrient deficiency or something else that could be resolved with medicine or therapy, but just to rule out anything serious, she got us an appointment to get a CAT scan the next day at Walter Reed, the larger Army Medical Center for the National Capitol Region.
So, on Thursday, 17 December, we took Sophie to the hospital to get a scan. After the scan, instead of being sent home and told that they’d get the results to us in the next couple weeks (as is usually the procedure), we waited and waited for what seemed like hours (but may have only been a half hour or so, I don’t know). Eventually we were pulled into a closet of a room with a computer and two doctors. They pulled up her scan and showed us a big black area about the width of a baseball and told us that they weren’t sure what it was, but they were sure she would need an MRI and they were not equipped to do it there. They were referring us to the Children’s National Medical Center down the road. Sitting in that room I looked at my wife and knew that everything had changed and could never go back to being the way it was before. They sent us to the ER where an ambulance would pick us up and take us in for the MRI.
The ambulance took forever to arrive. We were scared and confused. It got late. Sophie had been fasting for the scan, and since she would be going in for another she had to continue her fast. She was hungry, tired, and righteously upset. She was the only one that cried though.
They couldn’t get her in for the MRI until the next morning. Immediately afterward they urgently recommended surgery. It all happened so fast. Wednesday: ordinary pediatrician’s visit. Thursday: precautionary CAT scan. Friday morning: brain surgery?!? There wasn’t time to think about it then though.
While in the waiting room we were sitting stoically by a nervous mother. “What is your child in for?” she asked. We instead asked what her child was there for. “He’s getting his tonsils removed,” she replied. We never told her what we were there for.
It was about that time that we got up and decided to walk the hallways for a bit. That was the first time we cried. Still though, our thoughts were focused on our family and our daughter. In that moment I was enjoying a gift you had given me–a gift that I became poignantly aware of less than a week later (we’ll get to that in a minute).
After the six hour surgery, I stayed the night in the hospital with Sophie that night and my wife drove home as it began to snow. The next morning we found that we were snowed in. You may have heard of that snow storm in the news as it was the beginning of the terrible 2009/2010 snow storm that hit the East coast.
The snow gave me a chance to finally update my family on what had happened.
She recovered quickly, and by Monday there was a break in the snow, a few roads had opened, and the doctor told us that we were free to go. Less than a week later, the day before Christmas, we got a letter in the mail from TriCare informing us that all of the bills for the hospital had been paid.
A wave of relief rushed over me. It wasn’t until that point that I remembered that in the civilian world people pay a lot of money for things like brain surgery. I wish I had kept that letter with its 6-digit total. That was the gift you gave me. Four years and almost a dozen expensive MRIs later, she is in perfect health, and we don’t owe a dime for any of it. We received some of the top care in the world, from one of the most qualified and expert pediatric neurosurgeons in the nation, under the guidance of one of the most respected and loved pediatric neuro-oncologists in the world, and it was all for the cost of one decision that you ultimately helped me make.
So, Master Sergeant Dremel, how did you save a life? Surely, even if I had left the military, Sophie would have received the care she needed. We would certainly not have been living near the Children’s National Medical Center in DC, so she wouldn’t have seen the same experts she saw. But, you know what? This isn’t about her life. She might have had a worse time with another hospital, or even had a very similar experience. But it would have cost me a fortune under any medical plan I would have been able to afford (remember, this was less than a year after we parted ways).
There are things worse than death. Not being able to support my family and provide for their needs is one of those things for me. That is my life. And you saved it for me.
For some photos and information about Sophie’s adventure, see: