'THEY TRULY, GENUINELY CARE': HOW USO PATHFINDER HELPED A CANCER SURVIVOR TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE

BY SANDI MOYNIHAN | JULY 2017

FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky—Kristin Rogers may no longer be a soldier, but she’s still a fighter.

“I’ve really had a hard life, and nothing has never come easy to me,” Rogers said. “I’ve always done everything on my own.”

At 18, she joined the Army. At 23, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, the 29-year-old is in remission and building a successful civilian life and career, all thanks to the help she received from the USO PathfinderSM program.

“They truly, genuinely care about everybody that comes through those doors,” Rogers said, referring to USO Pathfinder. “It’s because of them that I got the job.”

Growing up in Decatur, Illinois, Rogers always felt she had a calling to serve in the military. So after graduating high school in 2007, Rogers left her hometown and joined the Army just two weeks after turning 18.

“I didn’t have anyone in [my] family in the military [influencing my decision to join],” she said. “I just wanted to serve a higher purpose. I wanted to do something honorable.”

It didn’t take long after enlisting for Rogers, who eventually became a combat medic, to realize the military lifestyle was everything she hoped it would be – and more. From helping fellow service members to meeting lifelong friends and mentors, Rogers felt at home in the Army. Intent on making the most of her time in the military, Rogers quickly set her sights on serving 20 years before retiring to civilian life.

“The Army gave me a sense of purpose,” she said. “I feel good when I help other people, that’s what I always want to do, to make them better.”

Then the diagnosis came.

Although Rogers has a family history of breast cancer, she never expected the disease would actually hit her, at least not when she was an otherwise-healthy 23-year-old.

“Things happen and you don’t expect it,” Rogers said.

Kristin Rogers discusses job opportunities with Tonya Wacker. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

Intent on stopping the disease before it spread any further, Rogers and her medical team in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, opted for an aggressive treatment plan, including a double mastectomy, to boost her overall chances of survival. Rogers never let her cancer diagnosis and any related treatments stop her from doing her duties as soldier and noncommissioned officer.

"I never took a break [from my job], even after surgery … because my soldiers weren’t getting taken care of if I wasn’t there,” Rogers said.

As if battling cancer wasn’t enough, Rogers later suffered a series of injuries from overuse and training accidents. Ultimately, these injuries became too severe for her to re-enlist and she reluctantly began the process of medically retiring and transitioning back into the civilian world.

That’s when she thought of USO Fort Campbell and Tonya Wacker.

Over the years she was stationed at Fort Campbell, Rogers, a regular patron of USO Fort Campbell, became acquaintances with Wacker, who is the USO Pathfinder site manager on base.

She was [this noncommissioned officer who just] brought me soldiers and said, ‘My soldier needs help. He’s getting out, what can we do,’” Wacker said. "It never occurred to her that [someday] she would [possibly] be a client of the program.”

As their friendship developed over time, Wacker learned about Rogers’ cancer history and injuries she was coping with from her treatment and surgeries. Unbeknownst to Rogers, that’s when Wacker, who also has a background in counseling, subtly began to prepare her for the possibly of a medical retirement.

“We planted the seed with her [very casually over time so that] when they told her [she would] not be staying in the Army, [it wouldn’t be so shocking to hear],” Wacker said.

Still, on the day Rogers got the official word from her command that she would be medically retiring, it wasn’t any easier to hear.

“She went into a bit of a tailspin there,” Wacker said. “When you spend 10 years of your life working toward a goal … and to tell her that you’re taking that away was like taking the air out of her lungs.”

After the initial sting of an early medical retirement began to wear off, Rogers reached out to Wacker to learn more about USO Pathfinder and develop a transition plan. Over the course of several weeks, Wacker helped Rogers fine-tune her resume, search for jobs and prepare for interviews.

“They tell you what employers want to hear, how to dress – even the color of socks that you wear when you’re going out and having these interviews,” Rogers said.

With the support and assistance she received at the USO, Rogers received several job offers to work as an emergency medical technician.

Rogers now works as an advanced emergency medical technician for Lifeguard Ambulance Service in Nashville, Tennessee, and hopes to pursue a degree in nursing in the near future.

“I really truly feel like the USO, it’s such a great organization. It truly is and they help so many soldiers when they get out,” Rogers said.

“They’ll always be there for you.”