PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. – After overcoming a medical mystery that prevented him from accomplishing his dream, one Marine achieved his goal and finally graduated recruit training Aug. 2, 2013, on Parris Island, S.C.
Pvt. Aaron Sitka, a 20-year-old from Houston, Pa., has wanted to serve his country ever since he was a child. At first, Sitka didn’t know what branch he wanted to join until a friend of his told him about the Marine Corps.
When Sitka spoke to a Marine Corps recruiter, Sitka knew by the end of the conversation that the Marine Corps was exactly what he wanted for his future, even though he was barely halfway through high school.
“[The recruiter] was just so much more put together and more professional,” said Sitka.
Sitka first enlisted in the Marine Corps three years ago and was shipped to Parris Island for recruit training two days after graduating from Chartiers-Houston High School in 2011.
He reported for training with India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, and was assigned to Platoon 3065.
Training was going well for him until the company began basic water survival training, said Sitka.
Several recruits were already sick, and Sitka soon became ill. Over several days, his condition progressively worsened. He developed a cough that became so severe it made him cough blood. Sitka was unable to keep food down due to the cough.
Sitka said he refused to get himself checked by a doctor, because he feared the idea of being held back in training.
His platoon was practicing rifle drill movements with their senior drill instructor when the severity of the illness pushed itself into view a week after it began. Sitka began to cough uncontrollably and vomit. His senior drill instructor quickly took notice and sent him to the battalion’s medical clinic to be evaluated.
After an examination, medical personnel transported Sitka from the 3rd Battalion Aid Station to the depot’s Branch Medical Clinic, where he received a chest X-ray. Corpsmen told Sitka that a large mass had formed in his chest. After hearing the grim news, he was transferred to Naval Hospital Beaufort and then Beaufort Memorial Hospital as puzzled doctors tried to determine what the large mass was.
Doctors told Sitka to sit in a waiting room for his test results.
“The last thing I remember was waiting for my results. Then, I woke up in the emergency room with two IVs, and my senior drill instructor was there,” said Sitka. “I quickly shot out of the bed and gave the proper greeting of the day, ripping the IVs out.”
A doctor told Sitka that the mass was sitting at the top of his right lung, pressing against his heart, and it needed to be removed as soon as possible.
Sitka was admitted to the hospital and given a vaporizer mask, which helped relieve much of the coughing and associated pain.
However, Sitka was unable to continue recruit training, as his condition was too serious for him to remain on the island for any kind of rehabilitation.
Sitka felt relieved that he would be leaving Parris Island and reuniting with his family. However, part of him wanted to stay.
“I was packing my stuff, and I wanted to go home, but the second I left, I knew I still wanted to be a Marine,” Sitka said.
For his mother, Cynthia Sitka, it was the first time she had seen her son in several months since he first left to pursue his dream of becoming a Marine.
“When I picked him up at the airport, I saw how broken and devastated he was,” said Cynthia Sitka. “It was scary.”
Aaron Sitka visited several doctors when he returned home until deciding on a procedure that would require the least amount of recovery time.
Just a week before the surgery, he received news that the mass was made of calcium and was not cancerous.
It took him about a month to fully recover from the surgery, after which he immediately began the long fight to get back into the Marine Corps. Despite the setback, Sitka would not give up. He wanted to return to Parris Island for another shot at earning the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
“He’s a fighter,” said Cynthia Sitka. “[The illness] just made him more determined to join and get back into the Marine Corps.”
But getting back to Parris Island would require a medical waiver, a process which can sometimes be long and tedious. The applicant must go to their area Military Entrance Processing Station where they are seen by a doctor. The waiver request is then sent to the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and finally to Marine Corps Recruiting Command for final evaluation, said Capt. Steven Valenti, 26, the operations officer of Recruiting Station Pittsburgh, where Sitka was recruited.
“It was like an endless cycle, and I thought I’d never come back,” said Sitka.
For 17 months, he saw multiple doctors and took seemingly endless tests to show he had recovered and was fit for duty.
He spent countless hours in the recruiting office hounding the recruiters about any kind of news that might shed light on his situation, said Sgt. Dante Capane, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh. Sitka also spent his time helping train new poolees for boot camp.
It was a two-year struggle until he finally received the news he had been waiting so long to hear.
“I remember the day I was told I was going back,” said Sitka with tears streaming down his face. “I got a call from my recruiter early in the morning after I just got off of work, and he said, ‘Congratulations Sitka, you’re going back. You’re going to be a Marine!’”
Soon after, he took the oath of enlistment a second time and was headed back to Parris Island on May 6, 2013.
When he finally returned to the island, he couldn’t quite accept what was happening.
“Everything felt so unreal, like something was going to happen with my waiver, but then I realized it was really happening,” said Sitka.
Sitka was placed in Platoon 2057, Fox Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, and endured the rigorous 13 weeks of recruit training to claim the title of Marine.
He completed grueling hikes, intense physical training and the Crucible to reach his goal, and he has big plans for when he leaves Parris Island.
“I want to be a role model,” said Sitka. “I want to be like the Marine that inspired me to be a Marine.”
His selfless dedication to his country has pushed him beyond his body’s limitations, and he no longer questions why he did all he could to achieve his goal.
Sitka felt he would not be able to accomplish his dream if the Marine Corps had not given him a second chance at life and allowed him another opportunity to claim the title of Marine.
“The Marine Corps saved my life, and that is the real reason why I am here today.”