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BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La.-- As a previous Global Strike Challenge competitor, Minot Air Force Base, N.D., missileer 1st Lt. Shawn Burnside is no stranger to facing challenges. However, this year brought a challenge the 91st Missile Wing member wasn't expecting to face -- cancer.
During the 2011 competition, which recognizes the "best of the best" among Air Force Global Strike Command's bomber, missile, helicopter, maintenance and security forces personnel, Burnside and his crew partner represented Minot's 740th Missile Squadron as they competed for the distinction of "best missile crew" in the Command.
"The first year I competed, my crew partner and I were very capable. We managed to achieve second place, which was great, but I guess it just wasn't enough," the lieutenant said. "I wanted more. I wanted to be on top. I wanted to be that number one guy."
Burnside said he felt like being a competitor in Global Strike Challenge 2011 earned him and his crew partner a certain amount of respect.
"One of the things you find missileers respect the most is proficiency and capability," he said. "I liked having that capability, and I never really realized what it afforded me until after comp was done. Being able help my fellow crew members work through things they hadn't seen before, and being able to explain concepts that were a little more in-depth and better the crew force as a whole, was by far the most rewarding of all the benefits we got."
That desire to better the missile crew community and the chance to be named the top crew in AFGSC drove Burnside to compete for a spot on the team again this year. Competitors in every category are only allowed two months to train before they compete. For the missile crews, training includes a week of in-depth classroom study followed by seven weeks of training in the Missile Personnel Trainers, usually six days a week.
In addition to the intense training, the crews still had an alert load requirement to fill. Between training and real world requirements, Burnside said, the team was lucky when they got one day off a week."
It was during that first week of training that Burnside's life would change forever.
"We started training roughly around the 17th of July, around the 20th or 21st of that month I had my yearly physical health assessment," Burnside said. "During my PHA, the flight doc was checking my neck. I happen to have a long, relatively bad family history of thyroid problems, never cancer, but thyroid issues in general, so it's always something they checked."
During the exam, the physician found a lump in Burnside's neck, and had another doctor come in to verify that there was a growth there. At the time, Burnside was told not to be overly concerned, because thyroid nodules are fairly common. In fact, he said his research showed that only five percent of thyroid nodules are ever cancerous.
"My personality is always plan for the worst, hope for the best," he said. "As soon as I heard there was a nodule, I immediately started making plans in my head, saying 'if it is cancer, here's what I'm going to do, if it's not, great, but it's not going to really have an impact, I can handle that when it comes.'"
Burnside said he decided, even before he knew if the nodule was cancerous or not, that he did not want to drop out of the competition, so he continued to train. However, while his doctors were not overly concerned about the nodule, they wanted to be safe and sent the 28-year-old lieutenant to have the lump biopsied.
"Three days later I get a call from the flight doc saying 'hey, your results are in,'" Burnside said. "You could just tell from the tone of her voice and how she approached the subject that the results were not positive."
Burnside was told that while the results of the first biopsy did not confirm a finding of cancer, there was enough cause for concern in some of the cellular growth that it was highly likely cancer was elsewhere in the nodule.
The samples were sent to the Mayo clinic for further examination, and the Mayo clinic initially came back saying the nodule was benign.
While all of this was going on, Burnside was still training for Global Strike Challenge, and said he never considered dropping out. The big question: would his doctors allow him to compete?
"It was largely going to hinge on what the doctor had to say," Burnside said."If it was time-sensitive and had to be done right away or (training) would have extreme adverse effects, that was really the only way I would consider dropping out of the competition."
Still, training for Global Strike Challenge was not without its difficulties. Training usually ran from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the lieutenant said he endured a lot of fatigue trying to balance training with his medical appointments.
"I had to work in doctor's appointments around our training," he said. "I would try to get my doctor's appointments around 2 p.m., so I could get up earlier, go to my appointment and then go to training."
Burside said he was relieved -- but he still faced surgery.
"The surgeon I was working with made the call to go perform surgery regardless, simply because the nodule was quite sizable," he said.
The initial surgery was performed Oct. 3, and an initial look at a cross section of the nodule showed no signs of cancer. However, when the samples were sent to the Mayo clinic this time, the clinic came back with bad news. Not only did they see signs of cancer, they saw signs of multiple cancers in the thyroid.
Just three days after the initial surgery, Burnside was told he needed to have the rest of his thyroid removed, and was quickly scheduled for a complete thyroidectomy. He was then referred to a radio oncologist, who laid out a plan of radiation treatments.
For several weeks, Burnside was put on a strict no-salt diet, which essentially depletes the body of its stores of iodine in order to allow for better results during a full-body radioactive iodine scan or treatment.
"That was the hardest part for me," he said.
Burnside credits his girlfriend of 10 months with keeping him on the diet, and encouraging him throughout his ordeal. He also thanks his family and friends, including his Air Force family, with helping him stay optimistic.
"Being in a community like the Air Force, would have been a lot harder if I had been in everything else," he said. "When you talk about the Air Force yes, it's a career, but it's also a lifestyle, it's a family. You really see that when one person in that family hits adversity, because people will step up left and right providing whatever it is you can't provide for yourself."
Once Burnside had recovered from his surgery and completed several weeks of the no-salt diet, it was time to start treatment with his first radiation dose. However, that first treatment was scheduled right during the middle of the Global Strike Challenge symposium and score-posting event.
Burnside asked his doctors to move up his first radiation dose by a week and delay his full body scan until after the Global Strike Challenge symposium and score-posting event so he could travel with his team and participate.
"It was important for me to be there in person because there was a chance we did well, and I knew I would regret it if we did do well and I wasn't there to be a part of it," he said.
At first his doctors resisted, but Burnside eventually won them over after confirming that pushing back treatment, or changing his diet for a few days, would not negatively impact his treatment.
Burnside traveled with his 91st Missile Wing teammates to Shreveport, La., Nov. 5. After months of training, competing, and dealing with physically and mentally challenging medical treatments, it all came down to the Global Strike Challenge 2012 score posting on the night of Nov. 7.
"I was extremely nervous, but also excited," he said.
When the scores for best ICBM crew were announced, Burnside and his crew partner took fourth place out of nine teams. While Burnside said the sting of his loss left him reeling, the night ended well for him and his teammates. At the end of the night, when the Blanchard Trophy for the Best Missile Wing in Air Force Global Strike Command was named, the honor went to the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB.
"I was very excited it is by far the biggest honor in missiles to win the Blanchard," he said.
Now that the competition is over and the scores are in, Burnside must move on to his next challenge. The team returned home on Nov. 9, and will receive a radiation treatment regiment soon.
One of the biggest downsides of the radiation treatment is that he must avoid human contact for 10 days.
"Because you're carrying the radiation around with you; it's not like chemo, it's not like they give it to you and it's flushed from your system; you're radioactive the entire time," he said. "We had to find a place to kennel our dogs, we had to find a place for my girlfriend to live for 10 days, and the first day I can have human contact, again because we pushed it back, will be Thanksgiving."
This Thanksgiving, Burnside will have a lot to be thankful for. But, after all he has been through in the past four months, would he choose to compete again?
"Absolutely. No question about it," he said. "If I had to make the same decision again, I would in a heartbeat without a second thought. This last year has proven I still have plenty more to learn and room to grow.
"There is still more I can do to master this weapon system and further better myself and my wing by doing so. On the other hand, it seems selfish to return for yet a third time as a competitor. There is always a time when one must pass the torch on to the next generation," he said. "So I guess in short yes and no. Who knows what the next year will bring?"