print story Print email this story to a friend E-Mail

tool name

tool goes here

JBLM lieutenant colonel shows resiliency in the face of cancer

Northwest Guardian

Published: 12:01PM May 29th, 2014

Colonel James W. Danna III didn’t have to bet on Jose H. Ocasio-Santiago.

The commander of the 191st Infantry Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord needed someone to command the 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment (Training Support). He had other lieutenant colonels who wanted the job.

Ocasio-Santiago, a lifelong infantryman and veteran of five deployments, said he was humbled and excited to lead the unit.

He said he looked forward to applying his technical and tactical expertise to training smaller units; the command seemed like just the right fit for him from the time he was offered the position in March 2013.

Then in January, while preparing for the transition, Ocasio-Santiago said he started feeling pain in his abdomen and experiencing illness he couldn’t explain.

He went to Madigan Army Medical Center for the pain and received an unexpected diagnosis — testicular cancer. It had already spread into his lymph nodes.

“I was shaking hands with (Danna) on a Friday,” Ocasio-Santiago said, and by the following Monday, he was a cancer patient.

At that point, Danna and Ocasio-Santiago needed to make a choice. For the two men, who had worked together before, there only was one choice.

Head in the game

Ocasio-Santiago, 41, helped write the book on the Army’s newest approach to readiness.

He was a staff officer at the Pentagon at the time, drawing from his experiences during deployments to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea.

The particulars evolved, but the core of his vision as Ocasio-Santiago described it remained constant: Soldiers keeping their heads in the game.

“Before ready and resilient, you looked at a Soldier and said, ‘He’s in shape, he shoots well, he (knows) customs and courtesies, he’s disciplined,’ and you said, ‘that’s a great Soldier,’” Ocasio- Santiago said. “What ready and resilient is about is, none of those categories change, but you add one — ‘Is his head in the game?’ Whether you can focus on your duty when you come to work counts.”

Ocasio-Santiago’s disease tested his focus. He’d suffered other injuries — even having to relearn how to walk after a back injury — but cancer was unlike anything he’d faced before.

He first determined his priorit-ies, which he said wasn’t easy. Doctors determined he could adopt a short, intense chemotherapy regimen, one that would last just nine weeks after surgery but overlap with taking command of the 1-357 Inf. Bn.

He also educated himself about cancer. That meant accepting the rigors of the treatment, and coming to terms with the fact that he couldn’t see it or touch it.

His family and friends were supportive, but they could only do so much to help him.

“You’re a one-man show,” Ocasio-Santiago said. “Everyone helps, but at the end of the day, it’s the cancer and you.”

Still wants to fight

Ocasio-Santiago wasn’t done yet, though. The Puerto Rican native said the Army had given him a chance to do something unique, something that made him relevant.

That last piece, he said, was the thing that he woke up each day thinking about after the diagnosis and during treatment.

“‘How am I relevant to my friends and family?’” he said. “‘And how am I relevant to the Army?’ My goal is that you’re seeking out my unit or my name, so I can help the team.”

Skipping the command, slowly recuperating from the chemotherapy, holding tight as I Corps current operations deputy G3 — Ocasio-Santiago couldn’t do it.

So he did something else, something he and Danna said embodied the “resilient” part of “ready and resilient.”

Ocasio-Santiago put his MBA schooling on hold, then approached Danna and Maj. Gen. Warren E. Phipps Jr., commanding general of First Army’s Division West, and told them about his diagnosis and that he still wanted to lead the battalion.

Danna said he first was concerned with Ocasio-Santiago’s health, but he never doubted the man.

“I’d served with him in previous assignments,” Danna said. “He still wants to fight. He still wants to do this mission. Knowing what he can do ... I’m gonna give him that damn chance to do it.”

‘Resilient is an action’

Ocasio-Santiago said that sentiment from Danna was a powerful motivator.

He was humbled and energized that his leaders had that much confidence in him, in the time and energy they invested in him.

“That’s when you know ‘ready and resilient’ is working,” he said. “It takes a certain kind of leader to say, ‘Hey, he just got cancer, but I’m gonna support him because he’s going to show me the resiliency necessary.’”

Danna, Phipps and his I Corps colleagues worked with him on the scheduling. Outgoing commander Lt. Col. Eric L. Hefner agreed to stay on a little longer to give Ocasio-Santiago time to complete therapy before taking command.

Ocasio-Santiago underwent three cycles of three-week chemotherapy treatments and recoveries, starting in February. He said he just got most of the feeling back in his hands May 22, the day before the change of command.

He said the side effects of the treatment haven’t affected him yet, but he knows he can approach Danna about it if they start to do so.

Danna echoed that. “He knows what it takes to do this,” the 191st Infantry commander said, “but I had the faith he’d come to me and tell me, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Danna said he wants to figure out how to teach that level of focus and resiliency to others in the Army, but he added that Ocasio-Santiago’s example “will produce more than any PowerPoint slide ever will. It’s the example of the living human flesh performing it.”

Ocasio-Santiago said there’s only so much to teach.

“Resilient is an action,” he said. “It’s something you did. It’s saying, ‘I’m going to do something about this,’ then doing it.”