“I don’t remember being scared. I just remember it as something I had to plug through.”
Those are the words of Chad Burger when he looks back at his treatment for stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. At eight years old, that steady outlook would carry him through nearly two years of treatment and create a foundation for the young man who now serves his country as a Marine Captain.
Chad and his family were vacationing when they noticed the first signs of trouble. An athletic boy roughhousing with his siblings at the beach, he found that he couldn’t catch his breath. Thinking it might be the onset of asthma or something similar, his parents took him to the doctor for examination when they returned home. They were all shocked to discover that the cause of his breathing trouble was a massive tumor in his neck and chest area. Chemotherapy started immediately.
“I was young and naïve then,” Chad recounts. “I never considered that I wouldn’t get over it. I actually hated that I couldn’t go to school and really didn’t like not being able to play sports. But mostly I just hated being stuck in the hospital.”
And stuck he was. Cancer forced Chad to miss eighty days of school with chemo, spinal taps, and shots. All the while his weight fluctuated between being skin and bones for a time until steroids would make him eat everything in sight. While in the hospital, he watched movies and played games with the other patients but always yearned to get home.
Then there was the day he got to go home for good! When his treatment ended, he built up strength and slowly began playing sports again. He went to the University of Georgia with one goal in mind.
“I was always going to be a Marine,” he said. “My grandfather and great-grandfather served and I knew that was what I wanted.”
There were some hitches, though. Because of his medical history, he needed recommendations from doctors to get accepted. He had no issue at all with the physical aspect of service, and once the letters came in, his training began. Chad was commissioned in December 2010, then attended The Basic School and the Infantry Officer Course. Since that time, he has served around the globe.
While in the Operating Forces, highlights include deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) 13.1 in Helmond Province, Afghanistan. Additionally, he deployed as Company Executive Officer and Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) team leader in support of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF). As TSC team leader, he deployed twice to Senegal to assist the Senegalese military in training to counter narcotics and the flow of other illicit materials.
Captain Burger’s personal decorations include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and various unit awards and campaign medals. Currently, he is a platoon commander at Marine Corps Security Forces Battalion in Kings Bay, Georgia.
When he was home on leave a few years ago, he got the opportunity to visit young cancer patients wearing his dress blues. For Chad, this was his journey coming full-circle.
“I hoped that maybe one of these kids would look at me and think, ‘here’s a guy who had the same thing I have and he didn’t let it stop him from doing what he wanted to do,’” Chad said. “I got to talk to one little guy who had the same cancer as me. We hung out for about an hour. Six months later, I found out he beat it, too!”
Chad wants to give back to kids fighting cancer more often when he completes his service next year. He has nearly twelve months until his time in the Marines is over and then he will be a veteran. Of course, he is already a veteran of the toughest battle any child can face.