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Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011

Cancer survivor graduates from Ranger School

- The Bayonet
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FORT BENNING, Ga. — Cpl. Austin Saunders could’ve taken a medical discharge. Few would’ve blamed him. He wanted a Ranger tab instead.

The 21-year-old Infantryman successfully completed the 61-day grind of Ranger School, overcoming the mountains, swamps, sleep and food deprivation, and other tasks to graduate June 24. But first, he had to survive cancer.

In March 2010, a month before Saunders’ second deployment with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes. The aggressive tumor erupted out of his skin, making one side of his neck the size of a softball.

“It didn’t really hit me till I started chemo. I thought, ‘Hey, this is serious stuff,’” he said Friday. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. … I never failed at anything before. I knew this was gonna be another obstacle I had to overcome. It sucked every day, but I knew I was going to beat it.”

Saunders returned to his hometown of Grayson, Ga., a suburb north of Atlanta, and began chemotherapy at Emory University Hospital. He faced a week straight of high doses every 21 days. The sessions went on from March to July last year.

His mother, Kim Yarbrough, a full-time nurse, said she took off from work to care for the oldest of her five children at home as he recuperated between treatments. That first month, however, Saunders spent 18 of 30 days in the hospital.

“It was very difficult,” Yarbrough said, fighting back tears. “I stayed with him in the hospital through most of it. … The chemo takes the bad stuff, but also takes the good antibodies. It kills everything.”

Saunders said he suffered through the typical nasty side effects: nausea, vomiting and loss of his hair. The chemo damages the esophagus lining — it’s nearly impossible to eat or drink anything. Doctors told him an older person or someone not in his physical shape wouldn’t have been able to handle the toxicity.

“Because I’m a nurse, I just kinda went in that mode,” his mother said. “I’d literally set the timer at night and go check on him. I’d check his blood pressure and give him medicine for nausea.

“I think I struggled a little more afterward than during. Looking back, it’s more traumatic. I look back now and think about what a miracle it really was.”

His chemotherapy ended in late July. Two weeks later, Saunders returned to C Company’s 3rd Platoon. He was given the option of receiving an honorable discharge via an Army medical board, but he declined.

“I had a lot of people tell me I should do that, and get the disability pay,” he said. “But I really wanted to stay in, continue what I was doing and not let it affect me at all. I didn’t want to join the Ranger Regiment and not have my tab. I wouldn’t have been able to quit knowing I wasn’t a 100 percent Ranger.”

Saunders also went against his doctor’s advice in coming back to the platoon, regiment officials said. But he was cleared to conduct physical training and completed a vigorous battalion PT event, which consisted of an eight-mile run in body armor and various combat-related tasks.

“It speaks volumes,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Horsager, his platoon sergeant. “He could’ve gotten out of the military and been taken care of the rest of his life, but he didn’t do that. It’s pretty motivational to see a guy who has the drive to do that after surviving cancer and four months of chemo.”

Several more medical hurdles remained before he could enter Ranger School, Horsager said. It required a number of waivers. But Saunders slowly regained his physical strength.

By February, he’d fully recovered and was medically cleared for the Small Unit Ranger Tactics course. He went to Ranger School the following month.

Attending and completing Ranger School was “one of the highlights of my military career,” Saunders said.

“It was definitely awesome to graduate,” he said. “The physical part was hard for a lot of people. Being in the Ranger Regiment helped prepare me for it. The mental and emotional part was hardest for me, but my team leaders and squad leaders taught me everything I needed to know before I got there.”

Saunders played football, basketball and baseball for Grayson High School, where he graduated in 2008 and joined the Army that summer. His competitive nature led him to the Ranger Regiment, he said.

“I always liked being the best at everything,” he said. “I heard the Rangers were the best, and I wanted to be a part of this.”

Saunders, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, said he wants to continue serving in the special operations community. When he returned to the unit following Ranger School, he became a senior gun team leader in 3rd Platoon.

His advice for other Rangers?

“It can always be worse than what it is right now,” he said.

If the cancer doesn’t resurface within this first year, there’s a 98 percent chance it’ll stay in remission, doctors have told Saunders.

“It’s incredible that he even went back. He didn’t have to, but he just did it,” Yarbrough said. “He looks better today than he did before. He looks awesome.

“He’s always been that kid who’s been bound and determined. Whatever he sets his mind to, he’s going to do it. That’s just his personality.”

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