In the middle of predeployment night-training exercise, Staff Sgt. Nestor “Joe” Cruz struggled to lift his body from the humvee. In fact, he found he could hardly move at all. The Marines’ efforts to extract him drew the attention of the company commander.
A mandated trip to medical left Cruz on a week’s bed rest combating pneumonia. Eventually, a series of tests brought the conclusion that it was either a fungus or cancer, and he was referred to Bethesda for further treatment.
After several biopsies, Cruz was notified that he had Stage 4, Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, cancer of lymph cells. He began chemotherapy Sept. 24, 2009.
“The biggest thing going through my mind was ‘what am I going to tell my family,’” Cruz said. “That was the only thing I was initially thinking about.”
His family made the decision to cherish each day and not hang their heads when they found out what they would be battling.
“I couldn’t change what happened, just like I wouldn’t be able to stop a round that was already going down range,” said Cruz. “The only thing we could do was stay positive, and that’s what we did.”
Cruz said everyone had their moments of thinking about what would happen if he succumbed to the disease, but he wanted to be remembered in a positive light, regardless of the outcome.
“We stayed positive, and we had a good time,” said Cruz. “The entire time my hospital floor smelt like a Puerto Rican house on a Sunday. There was always someone there visiting and bringing food.”
Looking back on the time he spent in chemotherapy, Cruz said there is a lot he can’t remember. The day-to-day struggles are a blur to him, but he does remember the moments of excruciating pain.
“I think it was harder on my wife,” Cruz said of his wife, Helen. “She was the one getting the bad news every single day, and she still came into my room with a smile on her face. That’s a true warrior.”
The Stage 4 cancer, which had spread throughout Cruz’s body, weakened him to the point that simply standing up and stretching broke his back.
“The pain level was horrendous,” said Cruz. “I stood up and then heard a popping. That’s when they started telling me I wasn’t going to be able to get out of bed or walk anymore.
“Of course, you give a Marine a challenge or tell me I can’t do something, and I’m going to try and do it. As soon as they told me that, my number one goal was to get strong enough to go back to an active unit and have Marines under my belt and be that leader again.”
Cruz didn’t feel like he was able to lead Marines, but he did what he could by visiting wounded warriors who were at the hospital with him. Helen said he was leading from the front, even during his stay in the hospital.
“There were so many times someone would come in to try and lift his spirits,” Helen said. “Within 15 minutes, the situation had been turned around and Joe was helping them out.”
In February, Cruz was cleared to go home. The cancer cells were still present in his lungs, but no longer active. He was completely free of cancer in June 2011. At this point, Cruz was ready to get back in the fight, if he could. His neighbor told him there was a job opening at Weapons Training Battalion that would be perfect for him.
“I wanted to show the Marine Corps and myself that I could still lead Marines regardless of what was wrong with me,” said Cruz. “I may not be able to do a physical fitness test or go on a hump, but I can still lead Marines during my recovery.”
Hellen wasn’t surprised he wanted to get back to work and fully supported him. She said he was never one for just sitting around, that just wasn’t him.
“He has a passion for everything he does, no matter what it is he is doing,” she said. “He is a very compassionate person.”
While he was still in his half-body brace, Cruz went to visit the Weapons Training Battalion sergeant major and let him know he wanted to work for him.
“The first thought I had when he walked in my office was ‘what the hell?’” said Sgt. Maj. David Devaney, Weapons Training Battalion sergeant major. “Here was this Marine who was still in recovery from Stage 4 cancer asking to work for me.”
Although Devaney was taken aback he didn’t let it change his decision.
“Our battalion takes pride in our wounded warriors,” said Devaney. “If they can do the job, then they should be given the opportunity.”
The mindset and determination Cruz showed the battalion led to his being assigned to the Combat Shooting Team, where he currently works as the staff noncommissioned officer in charge.
Cruz and other wounded warriors who are temporarily assigned to his battalion set the example for all of the Marines.
“If that guy is doing it, how can anyone complain,” said Devaney. “Our wounded warriors here are all awesome Marines, and we try to be the most wounded warrior-friendly unit that’s not the Wounded Warrior Regiment.”
Cruz said the opportunity he has been given at the battalion has taught him a number of things and let him experience more aspects of the Marine Corps than just being an infantry Marine. At WTB, he gets to work with Marines from all different military specialties.
Devaney said Cruz’s work ethic and the work he has done while being a part of the Combat Shooting Team speaks for itself.
“If you could bottle up his attitude and give a little bit to everybody, that would be an amazing thing,” Devaney said.