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Army Officer from Hannibal Helps Others Discover Military Service is Possible after Ostomy

CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan – Lt. Col. William O’Brien and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Cuyler stand together in Patriot Square here 18 June. Both O’Brien and Cuyler deployed to Afghanistan with ostomies and hope to spread the word to other Soldiers and veterans living with an ostomy that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Cuyler and O’Brien are the first Soldiers to remain in service following this type of surgery. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class JR Williams, TF Falcon Public Affairs)
CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan – Lt. Col. William O’Brien and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Cuyler stand together in Patriot Square here 18 June. Both O’Brien and Cuyler deployed to Afghanistan with ostomies and hope to spread the word to other Soldiers and veterans living with an ostomy that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Cuyler and O’Brien are the first Soldiers to remain in service following this type of surgery. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class JR Williams, TF Falcon Public Affairs)

By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class JR Williams/Task Force Falcon Public Affairs

KABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan  – Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Cuyler began his quest nearly three years ago.  He wanted people to know they could achieve a full, active life following ostomy surgery.  In particular, he wanted veterans and fellow soldiers to know that life following this type of surgery existed.

“The United Ostomy Association of America is working with Veterans’ Administration hospitals to bring support and awareness to service members who need to have an ostomy,” explained the Hannibal, N.Y., native. “Veterans aren’t the only ones who need to know what to expect following this kind of surgery. Some of our Soldiers injured by improvised explosive device blasts need an ostomy as a result of their injuries.”

Cuyler advocates the veterans outreach program because he 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. Typically, this kind of surgery meant a discharge from active duty; but Cuyler set his sights on staying in.

After 15 months of research and physical therapy, a medical board cleared Cuyler for active duty and a return to flight status. A 12-month deployment quickly followed and during this time, Cuyler was presented with the Tony Snow Public Service Award from the Great Comebacks program.

That’s when the pilot began to raise awareness to help others in a similar situation.

Others like U.S. Army Lt. Col. William J. O’Brien, Jr., the Director of Public Works for Task Force Yankee.

“I received an ostomy after being diagnosed with cancer,” said the Quincy, Mass., native. “I found out about Bob from a company called Ostomy Secrets and they linked us up,” said O’Brien. “From there, he’s taken care of me and made sure I could stay in the military.”

Cuyler’s efforts laid the foundation for O’Brien to remain in the Army.

“I clearly remember the day that I got word that (O’Brien) was a soldier in a similar situation as I was just months before,” said Cuyler. “And when I called him it was obvious that he too was going against the grain to not only stay in the military, but to also get cleared to deploy to a combat zone.”

To remain in the service, O’Brien needed to prove precedence with his doctors. Cuyler provided a copy of his medical records, and O’Brien’s doctors cleared him for duty shortly after.

“It’s a privilege to be able to stay in the military and serve,” said O’Brien. I think the last time we really spoke, I was sitting in a chair at Dana-Farber (Cancer Institute) getting chemo and I got a call from Iraq and it was Bob. From then on, one of my goals was to become fully fit for duty.”

Now, just like Cuyler, O’Brien is continuing his service in the Army — to include a deployment to Afghanistan. Both Soldiers serve under Regional Command-East; Cuyler is stationed at Bagram Air Field with Task Force Falcon, O’Brien at Camp Phoenix with Task Force Yankee. For the first time since getting in touch, the Soldiers met in person at Camp Phoenix.

“It’s great to finally meet Bob after all this time,” said O’Brien. “If it weren’t for Chief Cuyler, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Cuyler said he’s helped others before, but he’s never met any of them face-to-face.

“It’s a great feeling to know that my experience has actually helped others to overcome the same hurdles,” said Cuyler. “Before receiving the ‘Great Comebacks Tony Snow Public Service Award’ everything that I did to save my career was for me. I had no idea that it would actually help others. Several doctors told me along the way that I was setting a new precedent, but at the time I didn’t really know what that meant. After actually meeting Lt. Col. O’Brien over here I actually felt what that meant.”

While Cuyler is thrilled to help O’Brien achieve his goals, he cautioned medical boards still have a place when it comes to deciding a patient’s ability to serve.

“I’ll be the first to say that the military shouldn’t abandon their medical restrictions when it comes to people with ostomies,” he said. “Although, I am pleased to see that they are looking at soldiers on a case-by-case basis, and if the individual has the desire, can find the right medical products … and if they learn to deal with their condition appropriately, that they will grant exceptions to policy to allow the soldier to continue to serve.”

Now, both men advocate others to use the veterans outreach program and to pursue goals following the surgery. They say a common misconception leads ostomates and others to believe they’ll never engage in rigorous activities again.  Besides facing the rigors of a deployment (complete with body armor), both men continue their athletic pursuits.  Chief Cuyler runs a half-marathon each week to help raise awareness for the veterans outreach program.  And O’Brien still enjoys a favorite pastime when he’s home in Massachusetts.

“I’m playing on the Red Leg hockey team, it’s with the Massachusetts National Guard, and we go to Vegas once a year to play in tournaments, so I’m really enjoying that. I’m still kicking.”

According to Cuyler, O’Brien now stands as another example to other ostomates that life isn’t over after ostomy surgery.

“Unfortunately, many soldiers and veterans (both young and old) do not continue to pursue their dreams following surgery,” said Cuyler. “I have talked with nurses who care for Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who now have permanent ostomies because of combat injuries, and a common theme I hear is that many of these young men and women are ashamed of their condition (they try to hide it from others), and they give up on pursuing many of their dreams.”

Cuyler said it was his support group that helped him after the surgery.

“If it wasn’t for the help that I received from the members of my local ostomy support group, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “The effect of support from others in a similar situation is powerful. UOAA acknowledges this, and therefore, they have created the VA outreach program. Our goal is the reach out to as many veterans as we can to offer both advice, and support.”

“Just have hope that you’ll get through it. People like Chief Cuyler and myself are living proof that if you put your mind to it you can do just about anything,” said O’Brien.

The UOAA is a national network for bowel and urinary diversion support groups in the United States. The veterans outreach program provides support, information, advocacy and service to veterans and active duty personnel affected by medical issues which have necessitated or may necessitate ostomy or bowel, bladder diversion surgery. The veterans outreach program came about to help military veterans, both young and old, live with their ostomies.

For more information about the veterans outreach program, go online to http://www.ostomy.org/.