Cadets Tell of Different Paths to Graduation

On June 25, 2009, 1,376 fresh-faced civilians reported to basic training at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

They were the class of 2013, and Wednesday they will graduate at Falcon Stadium.

Here are the stories of two senior cadets -- best friends -- who will become second lieutenants together.

Phil Patchoski

In November 2010, Phil Patchoski noticed a small lump in his left armpit.

To the Air Force Academy junior, it was annoying and ugly -- nothing more.

He put off getting it checked until June 2011, when it was the size of a ping pong ball.

Patchoski headed to the cadet clinic knowing that the results might not be good.

One blood draw and two biopsies later, the fears that had lurked at the back of his mind were confirmed.

"I have cancer, don't I?" he recalls asking his doctor over the phone.

At age of 20, Patchoski was diagnosed with stage-two Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

And it was spreading to his spleen.

His odds of surviving were 95 percent. The 5 percent who die of the cancer typically do so years after diagnosis, his doctor told him.

Still, "cancer is cancer," Patchoski said. "When you hear you have it, it's like, 'Oh God.' I wasn't the happiest about it."

Nearly two years after his life-altering diagnosis, Patchoski is graduating from the academy -- cancer free.

After his diagnosis, the academy offered Patchoski a semester off. His parents urged him to come home for the chemotherapy.

He refused, opting to continue his studies and schedule chemotherapy treatments for Fridays so he could fight sickness over the weekends.

"I preferred taking that chance in hopes of graduating on time with my friends," he said.

After eight months of chemo, Patchoski's scans were clear.

Four more years of clear scans and Patchoski will be considered in remission.

The soon-to-be second lieutenant credits his quick recovery to the support of parents, friends and the Air Force Academy community.

A squad leader was at his side for every chemotherapy treatment. Fellow cadets spent their weekends watching movies, playing video games and joking with him when he didn't feel well.

He's also grateful for military health care.

"I can't imagine having to pay even a copay for all my treatments," he said. "Knowing I didn't have to pay for it -- that my parents didn' t have to pay for it -- was a really big relief."

Patchoski will head to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., where he'll serve as a missile officer.

Until he's officially in remission, Patchoski's cancer disqualifies him from being a pilot, his original goal.

It also disqualifies him from deploying or being stationed at a base without an oncology department nearby, he said.

Patchoski said his goals have changed. He wants to join the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations.

"There's a lot to look forward to: having a job, living on my own, seeing how well I do in the Air Force," he said.

Cancer helped hone his positive outlook on life.

"It's another thing that, if somebody I know is going through it, I have that background to help them out," he said.

Paul McArthur

Paul McArthur had it made.

He was young, single and living in an expensive European flat on Uncle Sam's dime.

The senior airman, then 21, was working as an intelligence analyst at Royal Air Force Base Moleswort outside of Cambridge, England.

During the day, he researched potential terrorist targets and prepared top secret packets.

At night, he'd arrive home to the flat he shared with another airman, crack open a beer and watch the sun set from his balcony.

"I was really living the life," he said.

In June 2009, McArthur gave it all up.

For the second time in his four-year military career, McArthur reported for basic training -- this time at the Air Force Academy, where he'd take orders from cadets instead of seasoned drill instructors.

"All the kids who were yelling at us looked so young, like they'd just gotten out of high school," he said. "I just kept my mouth shut and ate humble pie."

Each year, dozens vie for up to 85 academy spots reserved for active-duty, enlisted troops.

The application process is no less grueling than it is for high schoolers. Troops must submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, a list of active-duty accomplishments, physical fitness test results and a nomination letter from their commander.

The odds of McArthur being selected were slim, and he knew it.

So when he was called into his commander's office at Molesworth in the spring of 2009, he figured he'd screwed something up.

Instead, he found a crowd of comrades waiting to congratulate him on his next duty station: the academy.

"My jaw dropped," he said. "I was speechless."

Four years later, McArthur, 26, is about to graduate with a degree in biology.

Like all cadets, McArthur spent his academy tenure sharing a tiny dorm room and eating cafeteria chow.

"I was like, 'Man, this is ridiculous,'" McArthur recalled. "If I would have just stayed in England, I could have been living in paradise."

McArthur had considered applying to the academy while in high school but thought he'd never make the cut.

"It's kind of funny that eight years later, I'm getting ready to graduate from here," he said.

McArthur's first assignment as an officer will be teaching study skills to freshman at the academy.

Next year, McArthur will head to pilot school, where he'll be a lieutenant with no subordinates and a lot to learn.

"If I pass it up now, I'm not going to get this chance again," he said.

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