It's not every day you bump into a personal hero at the local coffee shop.
As former Army Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer sat with his wife Miranda at Peet's Coffee in Springvale, Virginia on a Wednesday afternoon, a muscular young man in his late 20s approached, a question in his eyes.
"Hey, you're Ron Shurer, right?"
His name was Thomas Bailey, an Army sergeant just returned from a tour in Iraq. He wanted to know whether there was anything he could do for Shurer -- wash his car, watch the kids, anything.
"You're one of our heroes," Bailey said. "Actually, it's really cool to see you. If you ever need anything, just hit me up. Seriously, anything."
Shurer is a recipient of the nation's highest combat honor, a Secret Service special agent and a former Army Special Forces combat medic. But he had attracted the soldier's hero-worship for another reason altogether.
Bailey said he and his buddies were truly impressed when they saw a photo of Shurer at the Medal of Honor presentation wearing a beard, possibly in defiance of Army regulations.
"Like when you got your Medal of Honor with your scruff on, like you were like our favorite ever. We could relate to that guy. That's my guy right there. I'm like, this guy's just a stud," Bailey said.
Shurer and Miranda said they greatly enjoyed meeting Bailey, but Miranda noted later that there was more to the beard story.
"Some people complained that he had the beard," she said, but "that's one of the challenges of the cancer battle. He couldn't shave then because of his cancer. The chemo caused really bad skin rashes."
A New Fight
Shurer is now fighting on different terrain than the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, and against a different enemy than the battle-hardened insurgents of that remote region.
Fifteen months after he stood at the White House to receive the nation's highest combat honor, he's squaring off in an all-consuming battle against life-threatening lung cancer that his doctors rate at stage 4, meaning it has metastasized or spread to other organs.
"It's everywhere," Shurer, 41, said in a lengthy Jan. 22 interview at the coffee shop.
More than once, Shurer said he was prepared to comment on everything about the stage 4 cancer except his prognosis. Statistics from the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society point to five-year survival rates of less than 20%, although those numbers come with the caution that they may not reflect recent advances in treatment.
As he fights the disease, he's living openly with it, discussing his treatment and activities frankly in person and on his public Instagram account. His condition, he said, presents an "opportunity" to share his struggle with others locked in the same battle.
"It just wouldn't be right to hide it," Shurer said. His advocacy for others is part of the responsibility that comes with the medal he wears, he explained.
"We don't want [cancer] to dominate my story," Shurer said. He often uses the term "we" rather than the first person in discussing his cancer and everyday concerns, underlining his close partnership with his wife of 13 years, Miranda.
"But at the same time," he added, "I think there's a lot of value in just sharing these things that are a little bit scary, a little bit nerve-wracking. It affects so many people's lives out there."
Then, too, there's his background as a Special Forces combat medic. In Afghanistan's Shok Valley in April 2008, Shurer risked his life repeatedly, braving "withering enemy fire" to treat and stabilize a half-dozen wounded soldiers pinned down on the mountainside.
The battle of Shok Valley would become legendary for the heroism displayed by so many in the fight.
In December 2008, Silver Stars were awarded to Shurer and nine others from the Special Forces group. It was the most valor awards for a single combat engagement since the Vietnam War.
In October 2019, a year after Shurer's Silver Star was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the White House announced that Master Sgt. Matthew Williams would also receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 6, 2008.
The way Shurer talks about the events of Shok Valley offers insights into his approach to life.
"At the end of the day, we're Green Berets, and that's the order. We don't get impossible missions, we get challenging missions, and we'll figure it out. That's why they sent us in there, not somebody else," he said.
When those facing personal crises reach out to him via Instagram, Shurer feels he must respond.
"Why would I ignore these people if I could help a little bit when there are other people going out of their way to help me so much?" he said.
About every few weeks, he said, he hears from someone with a close family member facing a cancer diagnosis.
"They'll ask, 'Can you just text with me for a couple of minutes?'" he said. "I try to get back to them, just talk with them, help in some tiny way. I don't know how much I actually do, but I feel like it helps connect."
He regularly goes for radiation treatment, working with a team of specialists from Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C. He also travels to Baltimore for care for his disease.
"We've got a great team at Johns Hopkins taking amazing care of us," Shurer said. "And we're just enjoying each day and trying to have as much fun with the kids and family and still trying to be productive out there."
He said he's now in a "reassessment phase" and currently undergoing "targeted therapy" to address the places his disease has spread.
In a Jan. 6 tweet, he said: "In brain radiation today! It's been a hard end of the year, but we've been working almost daily with my docs throughout the holidays to figure out our best path forward. We are closing in on a trial that holds promise."
'Our Life Has Never Been Normal'
Through two tours in Afghanistan, and now the battle with cancer, his rock has been Miranda, who combines an upbeat personality with inner toughness.
He met Miranda Lantz, originally from West Virginia, on a dating site when he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
She was a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and was pursuing a graduate degree in education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. For their first date, he drove five hours to Virginia and they went to the movies.
In June 2006, when he learned that he would be deployed to Afghanistan with the 3rd Special Forces Group, Shurer proposed and she accepted.
She knew exactly when it was: "40 days before first deployment."
"I feel like our life has never been normal. So I think this is just one more thing added to it," she said of the cancer. "I feel like there haven't been many calm moments in our time together."
She briefly grew emotional when asked about learning of the diagnosis in 2017, and then continued: "I feel like this is one more curveball thrown at us."
They were riding in the car when the doctor called to tell them of the cancer and its spread, she said. "That was definitely" -- she paused. "It was definitely shocking. It was something that was not on our radar.
"I spent our whole life together worrying about him getting shot," she said. Now, they are faced with life-threatening cancer.
She has put her career as a teacher and administrator on hold to be at his side in combating the cancer and to care for their children, Cameron, 12, and Tyler, 8.
"One of the things he taught me early in our relationship from his Special Forces training: In their training, you don't look at the obstacles, you look at the path through or the way out. To me, that's like, 'What is the next best step we can take?' That's what we do every day," Miranda said. "We take it one step at a time and just keep figuring out the best path forward and the best options."
Born on Pearl Harbor Day
Military service is a family tradition for Shurer, who noted that he was born on Dec. 7, the anniversary of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks during World War II.
He cited his great-grandfather's service in the artillery in World War I and his grandfather's service on an aircraft carrier in WWII. Both his parents were Air Force veterans, he said.
After receiving a degree in economics from Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, Shurer decided to join the Marine Corps and was accepted at Officer Candidates School for a class that was to begin in October 2001.
As they were finishing the paperwork, the medical board noted that he had spent a day in the hospital in 1995 with pancreatitis after being hit by a car while riding his bike.
The medical board turned him down, so he enrolled in graduate school, studying economics at Washington State. But he left after a year to join the Army in response to the 9/11 terror attacks.
"At that point, I can't just keep watching it on TV. I've got to figure out some way to help with this war," Shurer said.
He became a medic "out of the sense of taking care of the guys who were actually out there doing it right now. I signed up to go take care of those guys."
Shurer left the Army in May 2009. But, he said, he kept "looking for a different way to serve."
He applied to the FBI and the Secret Service. But "the Secret Service culture just really spoke to me. I'd be standing on the sidelines of history," he explained.
By September 2009, he had been accepted by the Secret Service and was assigned to the Phoenix, Arizona, office doing criminal investigations and taking on credit card fraud and other cases.
He was then allowed to apply to one of the special teams and was accepted at counter-assault, where the work "just felt natural to me."
In the summer of 2016, Shurer began experiencing hip pain. At first, he thought, "Whatever. Just walk it off," he said.
But the pain persisted. A visit to a chiropractor gave some relief, but the pain returned.
He underwent an MRI in February 2017. The next day, while he was on assignment in San Diego, his doctors called.
"They'd found lesions on my hip, and I needed to get back as quickly as possible," Shurer said. "The Secret Service red-eyed me back [to Washington]."
"I've been fighting it ever since," he said.
A Fighting Team
Together, Ronald and Miranda Shurer are constantly determining the best plan of attack -- both for his disease and to help and support those who come to them in need.
Regarding those who reach out on Instagram, "we talk to a lot of veterans organizations, try to help where we can," Shurer said. "Obviously, cancer is so insanely specific. Most of the time, my advice is just, go find the best doctors you can."
Though he can't provide medical counsel, he knows a good word can sometimes make a difference.
"I know when I first got diagnosed, anybody I could talk to who had some experience at all gave that sense of comfort," he said. "If I can just do that, it's too easy to try to help."
Miranda said she sees it as her job to make sure her husband cares for himself amid his concern for others and his drive to "power through" the pain and side effects.
"When the side effects come up, I start researching what are the best things to do -- just kind of take one step at a time. For the major parts of his cancer treatment, we think we found the best doctors and we trust them," Miranda said.
She would not discuss the specifics of the side effects, but they can range from nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite to pain in affected areas and neuropathy, or nerve dysfunction possibly causing numbness or shooting pains, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Shurer is not always the ideal patient.
"The worse he feels, the harder he works sometimes," Miranda said.
Gen. John Kelly's Wrong Turn
In the conventional sense, work continues for Shurer.
He's still a member of the Secret Service counter-assault team and still goes in when he can, though he's now limited to administrative duties.
"I set schedules, get people where they need to be. Physically, I can't put on the body armor anymore, but it's still a good role for me. I'm contributing to the team. It still lets me feel connected to that team," he said.
As a Secret Service agent, Shurer had the unique opportunity to be at the White House when he was told he'd be getting the Medal of Honor. A key player in the events was John Kelly, then-White House chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps four-star general.
At the White House, in September 2018, it was already known that Shurer was battling cancer, as he had been diagnosed the previous year. Many also knew that the Army and Defense Department were readying approval of the Medal of Honor for the former Army staff sergeant.
President Donald Trump wanted to be the first to inform a member of his own counter-assault team that he would be receiving the nation's highest award for valor. A plan was drawn up that centered on Kelly.
Shurer himself hadn't a clue, but there had been hints that something life-changing was about to happen. There had been a cryptic phone call from the Pentagon saying that he would be hearing from higher-ups about his military service, Shurer recalled.
He and Miranda "were bouncing around ideas -- what could this possibly be?" he said.
Shurer had left the Army in 2009. He had earned the Silver Star in 2008 for his Shok Valley heroism, but he was out of the loop on the possibility of an upgrade.
It was too long ago, he thought. Then, there was another call saying that he and Miranda were to show up at the White House. The Secret Service would give them further instructions. They were told that Kelly would take it from there. "You'll have to come to my office," Kelly said.
He ushered them into the West Wing. Shurer knew the layout well and was puzzled when Kelly walked past his own office. He thought to himself, "Hey, General, you're going the wrong way," he recalled.
Kelly pushed open the door to the Oval Office, and there was Trump, seated at the Resolute desk.
"[Shurer] was very surprised," Kelly told Military.com.
"The president isn't always on his game, but he was that day," Kelly added.
Trump graciously welcomed the couple and asked whether they would allow him to present the Medal of Honor at the White House.
Trump recounted that "[the couple] didn't know what it was about. They walked into the Oval Office, and I told Ron that he was going to receive our nation's highest military honor. It was a moment I will never forget."
Kelly told Military.com that the moment had special significance for the Secret Service.
"They get paid to be unobserved and quiet," he said of the agents, and here was one of their own being chosen to accept the Medal of Honor at a packed ceremony in the East Room.
"That's one of the things that really came through," Kelly added. "They were so proud that two or three shifts showed up."
In his more than 40 years in uniform, Kelly said he has known several Medal of Honor recipients.
"Some of them struggle with it; they can feel it's undeserved," he said. He'd felt certain, though, that Shurer's character would allow him to accept the responsibility.
With the agent's permission, Trump acknowledged Shurer's cancer fight when he presented the medal on Oct. 1, 2018.
"As many of you know, a year and a half ago, Ron was diagnosed with cancer -- tough cancer, rough cancer," Trump said. "But he has braved, battled, worked -- he has done everything he can. That cancer -- he's been fighting it every single day with courage and with strength. And he's a warrior. He's a warrior."
Despite the ordeal of the battle on the mountainside, Shurer said he still misses the sense of purpose and spirit of team commitment he felt as part of Operational Detachment Alpha 3336.
At an Army news conference prior to his medal presentation, he said, "I'm not a hero. I just happened to be the medic there that day. The guys trusted me to help them, and I was going to do everything I could not to let them down."
Other members of the team now have that same commitment to support Ron and Miranda in the new battle.
"Two things you have to know about Ron: He's a servant and he's a fighter," said former Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr, who was the first to be wounded in the assault on the Shok valley.
A bullet had gone through his pelvis. He was immobile and exposed under fire. Shurer came running.
Behr was bleeding out and sensed that "I needed immediate attention," he said. "He took my body armor off, cut my pants all the way up" and began to "apply pressure to try to stop the bleeding."
Behr survived and, with a prosthetic hip, now works in cybersecurity and lives in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Shurer family. He sees them every few weeks, and said he marvels at his friend's resilience and persistent sense of responsibility for others.
"He'd be completely excused if he said 'I can't make this convention, can't make this event,'" Behr said. "[But] he continues to serve in that respect."
"There's a third thing you have to know about Ron," Behr said. "His No. 1 priority is his family and his two sons, to make as many memories with them as he can."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.