STUTTGART, Germany – The Marine Corps is known to breed strong, resilient warriors to face enemies and dangers unimagined to the citizens they protect. But for a lot of Marines, this strength comes not from recruit training but from the family, brothers and sisters in arms, and chain of command of the individual Marine.
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Diaz, the comptroller chief for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa here, drew strength from these exact sources while serving and in his personal life.
For Diaz, the Marine Corps was his ticket out of the small country town of Brawley, Calif.
“The recruiter nailed it. He marched into my economics class; he was loud, told us only 1% could claim the title of ‘U.S. Marine.’ He told us he was looking for a special kind of individual, the opportunities to travel, for education; I knew it was the place for me,” Diaz said.
Diaz married his high-school sweetheart and started a career that took him from southern California to Hawaii, leading to recruiting duty in Austin, Texas. Along with the responsibilities and duties of being a Marine, recruiting duty proved to have its challenges which led to stress, poor diet habits and lack of exercise.
“I was on a steady diet of two energy drinks for breakfast, fast food for lunch and would occasionally grab a quick dinner,” Diaz said. “I was constantly tired and lethargic and I attributed it to my daily routine.”
He continued, “As Marines, we are taught to push through the pain to accomplish the mission; that it wasn’t that bad and I thought it would go away as soon as I transferred to my next duty station. My health and my marriage were being deprived, but my wife kept life together at home and I kept fighting to accomplish the mission at work.”
Completing his recruiting tour, Diaz was transferred to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where a physical health assessment was performed as a standard check-in procedure. The blood work caused concern enough to refer him to a specialist and eventually a couple of trips to the emergency room where a stomach scan revealed a five-inch cancerous tumor lodged in his colon.
“There was a history of cancer in my family but at 30 years old, my mother had not told me the details,” Diaz said.
The medical tests provided evidence the cancer was spreading and prompt attention was needed. Diaz was scheduled for immediate surgery.
As Diaz readied for surgery, he and his wife were joined by his parents and the doctor began the pre-surgery checklist which would reveal new surprises to the situation. The group answered question after question without hesitation but when his wife was asked if she was pregnant, the delayed response was enough to confirm she was in fact carrying their first child.
“So that is how my parents found out we were pregnant, with me laying on a gurney about to go into a lifesaving surgery and my wife pregnant,” Diaz said. “I told my mom and dad we were planning on surprising them; we were just not intending this to be the way. Never have we cried tears of happiness and sadness.”
The road to recovery after cancer is never an easy one, but with his wife and new child, Diaz found a new mission -- to fight for them. This was his bedrock when he was given the choice of medical retirement or chemotherapy using an experimental drug that had the potential for a full recovery.
Diaz said it was the hardest decision of his life, but his wife reminded him of how important it is that their child had two healthy parents.
“She was my strength. Even after we decided to go ahead, things got tough,” Diaz said.
His recovery was full of complications. A weakened immune system made minor infections grave threats to his life and allergic reactions and medications meant multiple returns to the hospital.
Diaz recalled telling his wife that he wanted to quit.
“At that point, she took my hand and put it on her belly,” he said. “I felt our child move and I knew there was a higher reason for me to continue to fight. I found the strength to fight on.”
Diaz recalled the important lessons he’s learned in the Marine Corps, and his gratitude for the support of his Marine buddies and his superiors.
“Just as we learn in the Marine Corps, we are always capable of doing more than we think possible -- of pushing on,” he said.
Diaz fought until the cancer was in complete remission. He returned to full duty as the father of a new baby and with a rejuvenated and reinforced love for the Corps.
His wife and child were his reason to fight, Diaz said, noting they gave him the courage to live. The Corps, he added, was his reminder of his higher calling, not just as a Marine, but as a husband and a father.
“I always want to be known as the guy that can ‘pick up the log’ and be a contributing factor,” Diaz said.
His cancer is in remission, Diaz is back on full-duty status and he was recently promoted to gunnery sergeant.