NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A U.S. Army Reserve Soldier diagnosed with terminal cancer received a Disney World vacation for his whole family thanks to the generosity and efforts of his unit and various supporting organizations.
“It was a huge trip. It was unbelievable, actually … The little kid in all of us came out,” said Sheila Fleming, wife of Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Fleming, who has nearly 30 years of military service and discovered he had stage four cancer in June.
This was their first time to Orlando for the Flemings, who have three kids: Sam, Edwin and Alexandra. Because the family had moved so frequently throughout Fleming’s military career, they typically made vacation wherever they lived.
“We had never been on a big, blowout vacation, ever, with the whole family … and we’ve always wanted to go to Disney World,” said Sheila.
Fleming’s unit worked with the Yellow Ribbon Fund to make the trip possible. Originally, leadership at the unit had reached out to multiple organizations asking for help or funding, but it was the Yellow Ribbon Fund that came through, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 primarily to help injured service members and their families. Thanks to their partners and donors, Yellow Ribbon Fund gifted the Fleming family with Disney World tickets and helped pay for their travel. They also linked up the Flemings with a group of New York City firefighters who offer their vacation condo in Orlando to terminally ill Soldiers throughout the year. The firefighters even covered the family’s costs of food and helped pay for an electric scooter rental for Fleming to get around.
Sheila said she was touched by the love her husband and family received from everyone involved.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words. I just appreciate it so much … to feel really loved and special. I just hope that one day, I can do the same thing for somebody in a similar situation,” said Sheila.
But for the unit, taking up the cause to help one of their Soldiers was simply the right thing to do.
“He’s a father figure to a lot of the Soldiers,” said Tammy Mallory, the supervisory staff administrator for Fleming’s unit, the 304th Military Police Battalion, located in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mallory, who retired from the Army and is now a civilian staff member with the unit, has been among the most actively involved to help Fleming and his family’s needs. The unit helped Fleming transfer into a Warrior Transition Unit, which provides teams of nurses, doctors and staff who care for wounded or severely ill Soldiers. Also, because Fleming was due to retire at age 60, he faced the possibility of losing his military healthcare benefits. The unit worked with their higher command, the 200th Military Police Command, and the Human Resources Command to defer his retirement and keep his benefits.
“He’s a great, great guy. He’s a family member to us. That’s how we see him. We call him our brother in arms, and he’s terminally ill, so his family is our family,” said Mallory.
Sheila often jokes about the Army being Jeffrey’s “other marriage.”
“My husband is very humble … It’s all about taking care of the Soldiers. At home it’s about taking care of his family, but at work it’s just his Soldiers,” said Sheila.
Doctors discovered the tumors in June, on a Monday when Sheila took him to the emergency room because he had felt so weak all weekend after going on a run.
“It shocked us. He’s a healthy non-smoker. He left work on Friday feeling fine, and Monday morning he texted me to tell me he was in the hospital all night with chest pains,” said Mallory.
Fleming had always been among the most physically fit and healthy Soldiers in the unit. Just in March, he volunteered for a multi-mile ruck march. He ran with Soldiers who wanted to improve their run times for the Army Physical Fitness Test.
“A couple of weeks prior (to his diagnosis), he could have run six miles and be totally fine,” said Mallory.
“He’s not the type to get sick. He just pushes through,” affirmed his wife. “It just happened so fast … He’d gone on a run on Friday and he came home just wiped … He just wasn’t feeling well all weekend. He wasn’t himself … So on Monday, I took him to the emergency room, then a few hours later they’re telling him he has all these tumors in his body. It happened really fast.”
Fleming had always been there for his Soldiers, but since the diagnosis, it was the Soldiers who stepped up to take care of him.
“When we found out, the battalion commander and (command sergeant major) both said the priority is him and his family,” said Mallory.
Soldiers have been there for the Fleming family ever since they heard about the diagnosis.
“Initially, we were just spinning out of control … They kept saying, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’” recalled Sheila.
They visited him weekly and volunteered with chores around the house, such as mowing the lawn or trimming bushes and trees. A chaplain visited to pray with the family. Soldiers packed up his military field gear to turn back into the unit. They worked with his family on funeral arrangements, and have been helping them navigate through a labyrinth of other administrative procedures the family might face in the future. They attended his 60th birthday party in October, a surprise organized by Sheila.
“It’s hard to be in this position and feel so vulnerable and at times kind of feel helpless and so out of control,” said Sheila, who felt the Soldiers’ presence helped bring calm and stability to such a difficult situation.
“The military is my husband’s other family, and I think that’s what the essence of the military is: that it’s all teamwork,” said Sheila. “I just would want this to be an example (to others) of how we all should treat each other, and how we appreciate it and we feel cared for. I don’t usually expect other people to do things for me, but we were just so spun around in so many ways, that it’s just an awesome feeling to be cared for in every way.”