The year was 2007.
The first two times Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Johnson came back from service in Iraq, his family was amazed at the change in his appearance.
“We could really see the increase in his muscles,” Johnson’s father Johnny said Tuesday morning. “He was just a ball of muscle. He had worked with the Department of the Army to get weights and weight machines on the base, and it seemed like he lived in there. While at home, he used to run from Pine Ridge to Page’s Bookstore, 13 miles, several times a week.”
Then he came home again.
“He came back for 30 days of R & R the third time, and blood was pouring out of his rectum,” his father said. “My daughter is a nurse at Forsyth Medical Center and she had the doctors there check him out and they immediately sent him to an Army hospital in San Antonio, Tex.”
Johnson, 48, a 27-year Army veteran, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and rapidly underwent emergency surgery and multiple treatments of chemotherapy and radiation.
“They removed his colon and put a colostomy bag on him, and that’s when the trouble really started,” his father said.
In spring 2010, the recipient of two Bronze Stars and the Legion of Merit found that the cancer had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes. Half of his right lung was removed and more chemotherapy and radiation followed.
Two years later, an experimental drug was prescribed, and even more chemotherapy was administered.
In all, he has endured more than 100 rounds of chemotherapy.
Doctors at the Veteran’s Administration say there is nothing more that can be done.
But his family, including twin daughters Heidi and Cyndel, 22, and son Matt, 26, beg to differ. An extensive online search revealed an experimental treatment that involves purposefully raising his temperature to help combat the cancer.
Today, Johnson is in California undergoing the “very expensive” treatment with his wife Patsy at his side. The treatment will take three to four months. He can no longer speak because the cancer has invaded his windpipe.
But his family is far from giving up.
“In the past three to four months, he has lost about 40 pounds,” his father said quietly. “Every time he takes a bite to eat he has to take a drink of water to get it to go down. He really looks like a cancer patient now.”
The elder Johnson tried to stoically hide his emotions, but it was easy to see they were bubbling to the surface.
“It breaks our heart,” he said as he waited for his twin granddaughters to arrive. “I was living in Florida at the time, and he finally broke down and called me one night and told me he wished I were closer to him. I told him I’d be there. We sold our house and came home.”
Johnson said his son is a fighter, and his granddaughter Cyndel agreed.
“I believe in my heart his chances are good,” she said with a smile. “He’s not going out without a fight. He’s been in a war and this is just another one.”
But she noted it’s hard seeing the man who has stood by her throughout her life fighting for his own.
“From seeing him in the military and being a soldier, it’s hard to see him like this,” she said. “He was such a strong person inside and out. He was a rock. He’s always been there to help everyone else, and that’s how he is now, but he can’t. It’s hard to see him like that.”
The elder Johnson said the community support in his family’s time of need has been inspiring.
“He’s not begging, he has too much pride,” he said. “But there have been multiple benefits around the county for him to help pay for these treatments, and people sometimes just stop by and give him money. It’s been wonderful to see such support.”
He noted that any additional support is welcome.
“We need more prayers,” he said quietly.
His daughter became quiet.
“He’s our hero, and he’s fighting for his life,” she said.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.