September 20, 2016 –
When James Balutowski went to college at Metro State University of Denver, he entered a Marine Corps officers training program that let him attend Officer Candidate School in the summers and serve one day a month, all with a guaranteed seat as a Marine Corps pilot. It was a great deal for a young father who’d spent his life idolizing his own father and grandfather, both Marines themselves, the latter fighting in legendary places named Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
During his stint at OCS in the summer of 1999, Balutowski fell ill. When he returned to Denver, he said he got better but never really recovered. He pushed on until a Marine physical fitness test that December.
“I was struggling, but I still scored well,” he said. “A week later, I bottomed out. It went from a bad sinus infection, to the flu, to I couldn’t eat or drink anything.”
After some blood work, Balutowski’s doctor told him his white blood cell count was off the charts. A series of tests led to a diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), leading to 2 ½ years of chemotherapy and a premature end to his dream of being a Marine.
Sixteen years and several attempts at rejoining the military later, Balutowski – now a U.S. Army Reserve captain – was named one of 28 winners of the prestigious General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award for 2015. The award recognizes company-grade commissioned officers and warrant officers from across the Army who demonstrate the ideals MacArthur stood for: duty, honor and country.
Balutowski, now the operations officer for the 304th Military Police Battalion in Nashville, was recognized for his contributions as an exercise plans officer with the 86th Training Division at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. That role – typically reserved for a senior major – was thrust on him for Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) 86-15-03, which at the time was the largest such exercise in the Army Reserve’s history.
A CSTX is a large exercise designed to prepare Army Reserve units to serve at the corps level. It involves military police, sustainment, engineer and numerous other types of units operating together. More than 9,000 Soldiers were trained during that rotation, across an area stretching from Fort McCoy to the Joliet Training Area east of Chicago. At the finish, units are validated to move into the final year of their preparation to deploy.
Col. Mitchell Waite, the exercise planning officer at the 86th Training Division, nominated Balutowski for his efforts over 18 months of planning that exercise. He said Balutowski’s focus, mental agility and work ethic made him the right Soldier for the job when the major who was in charge moved on to a new assignment.
“Until you’re in the middle of planning something this complex, with this many moving parts over an 18-month period, you can’t really appreciate it,” Waite said. “He will continue to work until the product is right. Especially for a captain, that’s not something you find every day.”
Waite said Balutowski’s emotional maturity – something he earned as a sheriff’s deputy in the years following his leukemia diagnosis – served him well during the planning process.
“During planning events, we invite the training audience and the training support partners. They have their own interpretation of how things are supposed to go. They’d go directly to Captain Balutowski. He was able to resolve conflict. He can control his emotions and those of those around him to find common ground in order to solve the problem.“
Balutowski, 38, earned that grit and emotional maturity the hard way. He said the leukemia diagnosis “derailed everything.” The form of leukemia was one typically found in young children, and he said his body “took a thrashing” from the chemotherapy. But even though he had what he described as a “textbook” recovery, he faced long odds in returning to military service.
“The first thing I asked when I was diagnosed was how long it would be until I could reapply to the military,” he said. “I had to be in remission for five years before they’d even look at me.”
After taking a semester off to get through the worst nine months of chemo, Balutowski returned to school to finish his degree in aviation management and airway sciences. He needed to find something to do.
“During the most intense months, I realized that’s was what retirement would be,” he said. “I don’t want to wake up every day watching daytime TV in a doctor’s office. That was pretty much my life for six months.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Brockhaus first met Balutowski in college, when they both participated in the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Program. He said the leukemia diagnosis brought everything Balutowski had worked for into doubt.
“Jim was thrown into a new battle … for his life,” Brockhaus said. “Jim focused his efforts on survival. He returned to college after missing only one semester [and] graduated Magna Cum Laude.”
Balutowski, who started life in Smithtown, New York, graduated in December 2001, just months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 decimated the aviation industry. An internship that was supposed to lead to a full-time job fell apart, and he decided that if he couldn’t live out his dream to serve his country in the military, he’d find a job in law enforcement of firefighting until he could.
He was hired by the Jefferson County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office, and worked in the jails, on patrol and in the courthouse as he waited for five years to pass. In 2005, he went to the Marine Corps to see if he could reignite his dream of flying, but they did not need new Marines.
“I got frustrated; I still wanted to fly, but the Marine Corps wasn’t where I was going in life. I went through the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and got selected to be a flight officer. It was the next best thing if I couldn’t be a pilot,” Balutowski said. “I made it through 30 days. The hardest stuff was behind me, and I got called into Naval Aviation Medicine. They reviewed my files and decided that based on the chemo medication, they didn’t want to chance me having to eject out of an aircraft, because it could damage my spine.”
Balutowski returned to the Navy Reserve and his job at the Sheriff’s Office. But he kept striving to find a way into the military. One of his coworkers told him the Army Reserve was looking for officers, and he interviewed with the 244th Engineer Battalion, where he received a direct commission in November 2007. Before long, he was assigned to the 308th MP Company, which he took command of in 2010 as it prepared to deploy to Afghanistan.
When the company returned from its deployment, Balutowski decided to make the Army Reserve his full-time career. He soon found himself assigned full-time to the 86th Training Division. His work there – where he also served as the MP liaison, travel administrator, and physical security manager – led Waite to nominate him for the MacArthur Award.
“I wish we could have kept him here,” Waite said. “He’s probably one of the finest officers I have ever worked with in 41 years. If I were running a civilian company, I’d hire him in a heartbeat.”
During his time planning the CSTX, Balutowski also found time to achieve his lifelong dream: He earned his pilot’s license. Waite said it’s a testament to his ability to manage his time.
“He put in a lot of extra time. That goes with the territory. His focus on getting things exactly right, which you don’t see a lot with captains, was very impressive. He was able to focus on his family and things outside of work.”
Balutowski and his wife, April, recently adopted a child. While he makes the trips to Nashville to fulfill his duty with his new unit, the family remains in Wisconsin for six months with the new baby. His first son, Alexander, started Air Force Basic Airman’s School in August. He continues to volunteer with leukemia charities to show children diagnosed with ALL that it isn’t a “death sentence.”
“The cancer battle wasn’t only about me trying to pursue what I wanted in life. When you survive something like that, it’s your duty to help someone else who finds themselves in that fight,” he said. “You can make it through this and go on to do anything you put your mind to. My fight wasn’t only my fight. It was a fight for every other cancer survivor and kid who wanted to do this.”
Brockhaus said Balutowski’s response to adversity defines him.
“Jim understands that the challenges we face do not define us. Our response to everyday challenges is what defines our lives,” he said. “He’s inspiring because he finds a way to achieve even when the odds are against him.”
Although the road to now was tough, Balutowski said he considers it an honor to put on the uniform and lead Army Reserve Soldiers. He hopes his example can help his Soldiers understand how to live Army Ethos, particularly “Never Quit.”
“Hal Moore has a great quote in ‘We Were Soldiers:’ ‘Three strikes doesn’t mean you’re out. There’s always one more thing that can be done,’” he said. “I try to live my life that way and teach my Soldiers to never give up. No matter what, you can’t give in.”