By Army Sgt. 1st Class J.R. Williams
Task Force Falcon
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan, April 15, 2011 – Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Cuyler is on a quest. The 10th Mountain Division tactical operations officer for Task Force Falcon runs a half-marathon every week -- 13.1 miles in a single outing every seven days.
For some avid runners, a half-marathon a week might not seem like much. But Cuyler runs his weekly 13.1 miles while deployed to Afghanistan -- not an easy task, given the operations tempo, altitude and rugged terrain. But for Cuyler, the miles are just a small part of a larger, personal quest.
“My plan is to raise awareness of the United Ostomy Association of America veterans outreach program,” he said.
The UOAA is a national network for bowel and urinary diversion support groups in the United States. The veterans outreach program seeks to help military veterans, young and old, live with their ostomies.
“Unfortunately, many people limit their activities because of the fear of the unknown when dealing with their ostomy,” Cuyler said, “and others just need to know that they are not alone with this condition.”
The Hannibal, N.Y., knows all about living with an ostomy. In July 2007, following a seven-year battle with ulcerative colitis, doctors removed his entire colon. The surgery left him with a stoma -- an opening through his abdomen with an appliance bag attached. It also marked the start of Cuyler’s quest for understanding.
“My first thought following the surgery was just shock,” he said. “I remember looking down and seeing I was cut open, and this appliance was attached to me. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
At the time, this type of surgery meant a discharge from the military.
“I came back to work with the mindset that I was getting out -- that it was over for me,” Cuyler said. “Then, my nurse gave me this book, ‘Great Comebacks’ by Rolf Benirschke, a professional football player who continued his NFL career after his ostomy surgery.”
Benirschke’s book details the inspirational achievements of people who’d had ostomy surgeries. Though the stories encouraged him during that initial recovery period, Cuyler said, he thought the end of the road was near.
“My first day back to work was 30 days after the surgery,” he said. “I could only do one pushup and one situp. That’s it.”
Yet, each day following that first physical training session, the warrant officer discovered he could do a little bit more. “After a couple of months, I was getting back to my old self,” he said.
The book began to plant a seed in his mind.
“One day, I was working out at the gym and the brigade commander at that time, Col. Erik Peterson, gave me a funny look and asked, ‘Are you really disabled?’ And I started to wonder the same thing,” Cuyler said. He set his sights on continuing his Army aviation career, focusing on regaining his strength and proving he still could serve as a soldier and pilot.
“Colonel Peterson said he would support me to fight the system,” Cuyler said. “He took a risk. I’ll never forget that.”
Peterson, now serving as the 10th Mountain Division chief of staff in Regional Command South, said it was apparent from the outset that Cuyler needed to stay in the Army.
“Bob was an exceptionally valuable member of the Falcon Brigade team, but what was most compelling was his determination,” he said. “He had a clearly defined goal. He understood the physical and bureaucratic obstacles to that goal, and he endeavored to overcome them. The rules said ‘No,’ but in Bob's case, they made no sense. He was clearly capable of serving and contributing, without limitation.”
The brigade surgeon at that time, Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Edward Bailey of Sackets Harbor, N.Y., agreed.
“Bob is one of the most gratifying patients I have ever had the privilege to work with,” Bailey said. “The words ‘no,’ ‘won't’ and ‘can't’ aren't in his vocabulary. He overcame every hurdle to return to the cockpit. A 30-day summer rotation at [the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La.] convinced us that he was more than capable of returning to the fight.”
So instead of ending, it appeared the road ahead for the pilot was merely bending.
“You know, the warrior transition units sometimes get a bad rap,” Cuyler said. “But in my case, the Fort Drum WTU did exactly what it was supposed to do. The [organization] gave me a chance to get well. It was the best thing for me and the Army.”
Fifteen months after surgery, Cuyler hit his first milestone when a medical board cleared him to remain on active duty with flight status.
“It was incredible,” he said. “You know, I actually went to the board. I wasn’t allowed in the room during the panel, but they all saw me waiting outside the room. It was important to me, and to Colonel Peterson and Lieutenant Colonel Bailey, for the members of the board to see me for themselves, to wonder if I looked disabled.”
The next benchmark immediately followed the board, with a 12-month deployment to Iraq.
“A year in Iraq confirmed that his medical condition is an inconvenience, not an impediment,” said Bailey, now the 10th Mountain Division’s surgeon.
The deployment not only proved Cuyler could handle the rigors of combat, but also marked the first time any U.S. soldier had deployed with an ostomy and the first time any aviator flew into combat with an ostomy. Yet, the path to understanding continued after his return from Iraq.
“During the deployment to Iraq, I was awarded the Tony Snow Public Service Award from the Great Comebacks program,” Cuyler said. “Receiving that award changed things for me. Before, everything was for me. Now, I feel what it means.”
The exposure Cuyler received following the award inspired a new turn in the road.
“People hide [the condition]. They’re embarrassed,” he said. “A month or two after I received the award, people around the world contacted me for advice.”
As each person contacted Cuyler, he shared everything he could to help: medical records, experiences, advice and hope.
“There was a pilot from India who was fighting to keep his job after his ostomy,” Cuyler said. “Using my medical records as an example, he was able to prove that flying with an ostomy was possible -- and done -- so he’s still flying.”
While helping a fellow pilot brought some satisfaction, Cuyler said, his latest milestone affected him a little more deeply. At the end of this month, Cuyler will welcome a fellow ostomate -- and soldier -- to Afghanistan.
“Lt. Col. William O’Brien first learned of my struggle to stay in the military after ostomy surgery by speaking with Lisa Becker, a Great Comebacks Award recipient,” Cuyler said. “He then found me by doing the same thing I had done; [he] did a search for ‘military’ and ‘ostomy.’ But instead of finding discharge stories, he found mine.”
Down-to-earth and humble, Cuyler does not consider himself a trailblazer.
“That’s the big thing -- the gratitude I feel that my despair was able to help someone else,” he said.
Realizing how his fight helped another soldier, Cuyler decided to continue down the path toward educating others about the surgery and what to expect afterward.
“I was contacted by the UOAA about a new program, the Veterans Outreach Program, involving other Great Comeback vets to assist fellow ostomates through their recovery at [Veterans Affairs] hospitals,” Cuyler said. “Very few VA hospitals have support groups.”
Besides sharing his experiences and advice, Cuyler raises awareness of the program doing the one thing he once thought he’d never do again: long-distance running.
“I’ve been running a half-marathon every week since January,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that helps others. For every sponsor who pledges a dollar per half-marathon -- or any amount, really -- that’s another dollar towards helping someone else.”
Cuyler has run 15 half-marathons. That adds up to 196.5 miles for the man who once could perform only one pushup and one situp. The miles also pave the path toward understanding life after an ostomy.
“Bob personifies our Army values of duty, selfless service and personal courage,” said Peterson, who calls Watertown, N.Y., home. “It doesn't surprise me that he's, once again, accomplishing something very difficult in order to benefit others and call attention to something important.”