By: Army National Guard Master Sgt. Frankie Gomez, as told to Air National Guard Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral
The many duties required by military members involve countless obstacles – uncertainty among them. Whether the soldiers are serving away from home, or working in an environment that can heighten or intensify the threats in which they’re involved, the uncertainties can weigh heavily on the minds of these men and women – as well as the individuals to whom they are close.
Many military families may not know how safe their soldiers are, or if they’re involved in any assignments that may turn out to be detrimental to the warriors’ health. This overwhelming feeling of insecurity can often bring fear of the unknown, or that one day, the family may hear the news they always dreaded.
Warriors serving our country are often idealized – strong heroes who will defend our country and freedom from any enemy, foreign or domestic. What’s easily overlooked is that these heroes have to remain both mentally and physically strong to fight for our country.
So what if these factors to remaining healthy are suddenly taken away? Unfortunately, these feelings can become a reality to some. And how does this affect the military member? Think about the time that fears have hit you personally. What about your family?
Fear is instinctual. It causes us to protect ourselves in dangerous situations. Many fears are cumbersome – not knowing what’s next or how to react to these situations. There are a variety of fears that service members and their families encounter on a daily basis.
What if the fear is the family member receiving a knock on the door, and standing on the porch are two soldiers in military dress uniforms, waiting to give the dreadful news that will change the family’s lives forever. What if the fear is something that will change your life in its entirety, some event that affects your entire career? How about that one doctor telling you and your spouse that you have cancer. Words can’t explain the shock this kind of news gives a family. While we all hear of people who have been diagnosed with different forms of the disease, you never think it will happen to you.
This is the story of a Colorado National Guard Soldier who had a prominent future ahead of him. Life couldn’t be any better – until he received news from his doctor that changed not only his, but his family’s lives, forever.
The Soldiers and Airmen who know him best don’t call him Master Sergeant Gomez. To them, he’s Frankie. And he’s everyone’s “bestie.”
Though a self-described “big mouth,” talking is only a small part of his repertoire. He’s a man of action.
In late 2008, a poor run time on his physical fitness test and chronic fatigue were the first signs that something was wrong. It wasn’t until he gave platelets at Bonfils Blood Center that an elevated white blood cell count confirmed something was definitely awry.
Within a week of seeing his primary care doctor, he was tested at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Aurora, Colorado. A blood test and a bone marrow biopsy confirmed that he was positive for chronic myelogenious leukemia. He was immediately told he needed to start taking a new chemotherapy pill that would help stabilize his white blood count.
Prior to this medication, CML patients’ prognoses were near five years. Knowing the medication was his only option, Gomez knew that he needed to take it, not only for himself but for his family.
However, the powerful medicine – a super drug – brought on many side effects, which he said makes him feels worse now than the leukemia itself. However, the perpetually positive Gomez knew that it also attacked his cancer-affected white blood cells, preventing the good cells from being damaged.
“I have leukemia,” Gomez admitted. “It’s in remission right now, but with leukemia, it never goes away. All you can do is cover it up with medication and hope that it doesn’t relapse.”
Body aches, muscle spasms, joint pain, headaches, chronic fatigue, swollen, itchy eyes, diarrhea, vomiting – the list goes on and on – are just some of the side effects that he lives with on a daily basis. And these, he said, are worse than the disease.
“You just learn to accept it and deal with it,” Gomez said. “I figured it was better than dying.”
Although he considers himself a strong person, Gomez is embarrassed by his illness, but said it’s therapeutic to talk about it.
“You think a Soldier is supposed to be stellar,” Gomez said. “As a noncommissioned officer, you have this strong perimeter around you – this 360-degree perimeter. You’re strong. Tough. A mentor. A leader. But there’s something in my circle of leadership that’s not 100 percent. It’s cracked. And in my mind, I’m afraid that if it breaks, I won’t be the strong leader that’s posed upon me as a master sergeant. But I’m supposed to protect my Soldiers, so it’s my job to overcome and fix my deficiencies.”
Until recent months, only a select few people – those who needed to know why he had to step out of the office for appointments a few times a week – knew about his condition. But the illness has been with him since January 2009, when he was officially diagnosed.
He said he didn’t want the attention, and certainly didn’t want to be perceived as a “profile rider” – someone who takes advantage of the system.
He admits he’s had that perception of others – and it helps him be a better leader.
“When I have issues at work, with certain people, I’m not going to throw the medical flag out to try to alleviate it,” Gomez said. “I thrive on it. It makes me stronger. I may not be the expectation of what you want, but I don’t want you to back off because you feel sorry for me. That’s not going to make me a strong person. What’s going to make me a strong person is you telling me what I’m doing wrong and making me fix it. Be straightforward with me, not cautious because I have this.
“I’m lucky because I’m strong and have a high tolerance for pain, but a lot of people don't,” he continued. “I live a life of hell from pain and side effects, but I cover it up with a smile and charm. There are some people who just want attention from their medical condition, but I want people to know me as a funny guy and a good leader. And I want for other leaders to not judge a book by its cover, because they have no idea of the dark chapters that book contains.”
His side effects weren’t only physical.
“My career was cut short by this disease,” Gomez said. “I went from hero to zero in the Colorado National Guard and that really hurts me inside.”
Gomez, who’s never been known for a bad mood, said he understands suicidal thoughts. He’s lived through them – chemical imbalances caused by his medication.
“I’ve had crazy things in my brain pushing me to say, ‘Life is not good. You are not good,’” Gomez said. “These feelings are just crazy. These things aren’t me. I know better. When I feel this sorrow, I just block out and push it back down to wherever it came from.”
He said he also understands depression, because there’s a small part of him who still feels it.
“Leukemia may wear you down physically, but you control it emotionally,” Gomez said. “My motto is ‘Beat it or feed it.’ You can beat it and move forward or feed it and feel sorry for yourself and spiral into depression.”
Gomez says he’s grateful for good friends and family who motivate him to stay positive. His biggest supporters were those with whom he realized he shared similarities. He said his stepfather, Paul, and one of his comrades, Mark, also struggled with cancer. Gomez relied on them as his support group; people he could talk to who knew what he was going through. Unfortunately, both Frankie’s support systems were eliminated when they lost their own battles with cancer.
“My biggest struggle was fighting cancer alone after my step dad and Mark (Sgt. 1st Class Mark Jenkins) died,” Gomez said. “They were my support channel. I’m a very reserved person when it comes to my issues, and I don’t like talking about it, but I have to in order to help other people dealing with it.
“My family has been my stronghold after feeling my career has crashed,” he said. “I’m way too strong to commit suicide, but I did see that dark, open door, and the grim reaper welcome me with open arms before I turned around and made a promise to myself that I will be strong for my family. That was when I got really involved with marrow drives.
“That’s the gift I have,” Gomez continued. “I can talk to someone who’s depressed and I can relate because I feel it. I know how it feels to give up a dream – I’ve been living mine for more than 22 years and I’m not ready to get out – but I don’t have a choice. It’s selfish for me to stay in the military as a non-deployable E-8, to hold up the slot for a high-speed E-7 who can lead troops to war. It’s time for me to go.”
“First of all, Mark was a really good friend,” Gomez said, “and he was a Soldier. Working for a bone-marrow match was a motivating factor to keep his hopes up.”
However, Mark’s hopes weren’t the only ones being stoked by Gomez’s efforts. For the Army Guardsman by day and music fan by night, well, he has his reasons.
“We both kept the secret until he needed a transplant, and it’s to the point now that I need to start talking about my journey,” Gomez said. “That starts today.”
In 2011, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Jenkins was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a life-threatening blood cancer with limited treatment options and a prognosis of five to 10 years. The only cure for his condition would be a bone-marrow transplant – a treatment that had an equal chance of both saving his life and killing him.
By January 2012, Mark and his team had already exhausted the National Bone Marrow Registry. Efforts to cure his illness were sidelined as they awaited more people to join the registry and possibly be a match.
“He told me in March of 2012, and we pushed from there,” said Gomez, who, within a day of learning about his friend’s illness, began organizing bone marrow registry events.
Within 24 hours, Gomez made arrangements with Bonfils Blood Center in Denver to register civilian donors at an upcoming conference. Days later, he received 300 kits from the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program to enable service members to join the registry.
Gomez’s first donor drive took place on March 31, 2012, in conjunction with the National Guard Association of Colorado’s annual conference. By the end of the event, more than 100 Soldiers, Airmen and civilians had registered to be a match. Over the next two weeks, by word of mouth alone, nearly 60 more Guardsmen had joined the registry.
A few months later, Mark and his family finally got the news they were hoping for so desperately: Mark finally had a bone-marrow match. In October 2012, Mark and his wife Darlene travelled to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to begin preparing Mark’s body for transplant. The entire process was expected to take 100 days.
Though the journey was painful, the eternal optimist remained hopeful. However, the match came too late. Mark succumbed to the side effects of his treatment and illness in early January 2013.
“We sacrificed our time on this,” Gomez said. “We know it’s for a purpose now. It’s not just a fantasy to say ‘get on the registry’ but nothing ever happens. We know it happens. Mark is proof.”
“When Mark first told me he had leukemia, it kind of made me take a step back and say ‘What if I ever need a transplant and there’s nothing for me?’” he said. “Though my focus is Mark, in the back of my head, it’s like I’m building the registry for myself.”
And he’s not done yet.
Since March 2012, Gomez estimates he’s helped at least 1,500 people get on the bone marrow registry.
“Mark found a match, and that’s huge motivation to continue,” Gomez said, “to build the registry – get it to where it’s second nature for every military member to have an opportunity to register at every PHA (periodic health assessment) – to get the word out.”
And he’s taken his passion for helping Mark to helping others.
After Mark’s death, Gomez felt lost. That was when he was introduced by his good friend Tamara Gonzalez to a young boy named Angelo who had just gone through a stem-cell transplant. After talking to Angelo’s parents and hearing the sacrifice they endured financially, Gomez was determined to make a difference.
He organized a fundraiser at Hiccups Sports Bar in Denver to help the family. Not only did the sports bar jump to the occasion, one of Denver’s rock cover bands, Five 13, graciously agreed to play in support of the fundraiser, as well.
“The event was a huge success and opened the door for great partnerships not only in the music industry, but also with profit and nonprofit organizations,” said Gomez, who is now completely dedicated to help organize more bone marrow drives to add more people to the national registry. “I do marrow drives now to give people hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. When I’m working on the registry, around other people with the disease, I see hope in their eyes.”
Gomez is currently the representative for Salute to Life (also known as the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program) for Colorado. He also works closely with Be the Match (affiliated with Bonfils Blood Center); Love Hope Strength; Sparta Combat League; Guard2Guard; and Genny’s Hope Foundation, where he serves on the board of directors; to continue increasing the potential list of donors.
Gomez has also done radio interviews to promote leukemia awareness and help spread the word about the bone marrow registry.
“With leukemia, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “One day it’ll be in remission, and another it’ll come out and the drugs won’t work. These kids need a future. That’s why we’re building the registry.”
From the outside looking in, accepting his diagnosis wasn’t a struggle for Gomez.
“I automatically put my defense helmet on and was ready to fight this battle,” he said. “That’s what’s been taught to me throughout my many years of service: having the ability to get back up, brush the dirt off and continue moving on.”
He said he realizes, after looking at several other wounded warriors, that his illness is only minor compared to the many others who are struggling with missing limbs, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or even paralysis.
“If all I have to do is take a pill every day for the rest of my life, then I can’t complain,” he said. “There are many soldiers out there dealing with far more worse than I could ever imagine.
“Living with leukemia doesn’t prevent me for loving my wife or kids,” he continued. “I don’t have to rely on them to get up every day and take care of me. I can still walk, talk, see and hear. Often times, I don’t realize that it’s ok to be sick. It’s ok to show that I’m not 100 percent all the time. My wife tells me I’m doing too much and I should slow my pace, but this is what keeps me going. This is what keeps my mind off the fear and uncertainty that life could end for anyone, at any time.
“Don’t let your weakness lead you. You lead your weakness,” he said.
*** Salute to Life, the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, is specifically designed for military members who want to be bone marrow donors and feeds directly into the National Bone Marrow Registry. If you’re a match for a patient in need, DOD program counselors will work with you and your chain of command to ensure you get the support necessary to help save someone’s life.
***Master Sgt. Frankie Gomez has always had the reputation as the go-to guy, and a man who never accepted defeat. He is well known in the first responder community because of his time in service he spent assigned to the 8th Civil Support Team (Weapons of Mass Destruction), in which he built great relationships that continue to this day. Not only is he well-known in the first responder community, he was also the co-chair for the decontamination community for all 54 states and territories’ CSTs. He was handpicked to go to Germany to help certify the active-duty Emergency Management Assessment Team’s Decontamination Section. He is highly involved with the National Guard Association of Colorado, for which he was the conference and event director until Bone Marrow drives became his passion. Gomez is currently the operations director for the Enlisted National Guard Association of the United States, where he dedicates much of his time coordinating conferences as well as brining bone marrow drives to the national level. Additionally, Gomez also has a passion for music – ask any rock cover band in Denver if they know him and they’ll all likely agree that he’s their biggest fan. Music has always been his Zen, but it has an even bigger purpose now that his own health is in jeopardy.