Chief fights to keep boots on the ground - Remarkable soldier is deployed despite suffering muscular disorder

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Something was wrong, but what it was, was a mystery.

Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christian Smith, a maintenance technician was tripping and falling a lot lately, his left leg just wasn’t right. Smith, who hails from Villa Grove, Ill., was on a deployment to Iraq. He didn’t know what the problem was, but whatever it was, it was making him fall.

The year was 2003, and Smith was deployed with a military police brigade. Over the course of the deployment, he noticed his muscles growing alarmingly weaker.

“It was very humbling, to say the least,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do about it then, but I knew that once I got back from [Iraq], I was going to have to go see a doctor and find out what was going on.”

In February 2005, after multiple visits to doctors, Smith underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his back to help relieve pressure on what his doctor thought was a pinched nerve. It didn’t help. By this time, he couldn’t move the toes of his left foot, and he continued to grow weaker.

Still more visits to more doctors led him to a neurologist. Late in September 2005, he was diagnosed with multifocal motor neuropathy.

“It’s a condition where my body thinks there’s something wrong with the nerves,” Smith explained. “It’s attacking my nerves, and it doesn’t allow good conduction for the signals that tell the muscles to move. But there’s treatment for it.”

Every three weeks, he underwent an intravenous immunoglobulin treatment at a local hospital. By this time, Smith’s unit was on mobilization orders for deployment, but he was scheduled to stay with the rear detachment.

“Within four or five days, I started noticing a lot more strength, and by 10 days after that, I could wiggle my toes and keep my left foot up,” he said. “I went back to the unit and told them the treatment was working. At that point, it was a matter of how the Army medical system was going to handle this.”

The unit deployed. Despite his objections, Smith stayed at Fort Hood, Texas.

“The doc said when he diagnosed me that this is a legitimate medical condition that would definitely keep me from deploying,” he said. “He asked me why I’d want to deploy if I didn’t have to.

“It’s one of those things where, having grown up playing sports, you spend all that time practicing with a team; and, all of a sudden, they go to an away game, out of town, and you’re stuck at home,” he added. “It’s not a good feeling.”

A year and a half later, Smith found himself facing the same situation, this time with a new team. He was newly assigned to Troop R, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, once again on orders for Iraq.

The treatments were working, and Smith said he was determined not to be left behind again. He began what he called a very frustrating process to make himself deployable.

Once again, the doctors said no. A chain of e-mails revealed one medical professional after another who believed he had no business deploying. They cited the risk for contamination, with possible secondary effects of anaphylaxis or renal failure. They said his understanding of the condition was “oversimpli­fied.”

“My response to those e-mails was rather lengthy,” he said. “They thought I was oversimplifying the condition, and I thought they were over-exaggerating it.”

In his response, he said he outlined his own research — discussing the shelf life of the medication and the plan that he and squadron surgeon Maj. (Dr.) Sean Hollonbeck, had come up with to administer the treatments.

“The Army is attempting and perfecting new things in the theater of operation every day,” he wrote. “Why not this?”

“I didn’t think he’d get to go based on seeing the e-mail traffic from the doctors in theater,” said Capt. Jeffery Hernandez, his troop commander. “I never tried to talk him out of it, though. He had such a desire to be with the troops and support the mission.”

“You have to understand Chief,” 1st Lt. Larry Burney, the squadron maintenance officer, said. “He’s the type of person who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to anything.”

“I guess I just felt like I’m in the Army to do a job,” Smith explained. “Having been left back once, I told my wife, ‘If I can’t deploy and go do what I’ve trained to do, then I shouldn’t be doing this any more.’”

The fight for Smith to deploy became personal for Troop R. In a situation where some would look for excuses not to go, he was fighting for a chance to serve.

“A lot of people try to get out of deployments for one reason or another, and here he is doing everything he can to go when he had his ticket out,” Burney said. “Of course, that had an impact on the troops. Some people flat-out said, ‘If Chief doesn’t go, I don’t want to go either.’”

After a successful month at Fort Irwin, Calif., at the National Training Center, during which an enlisted combat medic administered the treatment, the Army finally relented. Smith deployed to Multinational Division Baghdad as part of Task Force 12 in November 2007.

“Army doctrine is to train in times of peace and to win at war,” Smith said. “I see a lot of value in what I did as a rear detachment soldier, but if the Army’s at war, I want to go.”

“I know it motivates me,” Sgt. Nelson Dawson, a soldier in Smith’s troop, said. “Even though he has this condition and could have stayed home with his family, he chose to come here and be with his soldiers. He said, ‘You know what, I can still do my job, why can’t I go?’”

He continues his treatments every third week at the aviation clinic in Iraq. So far, he said, everything has gone as planned.

“Other than his treatment days, I don’t think he’s taken a day off since he’s been here,” his commander said.

“At one point during the process, I had a doctor ask me what I wanted to get from all this,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be able to run and play basketball and do all the things I could do before.’ He said, ‘You mean you plan on staying in the military?’

I said, “Well yeah, if I can do all those other things, of course I want to stay in the military. If I wanted to get out, I would have done it a long time ago, but that’s just not me.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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