The things that have gone on in Justin Anderson’s head over the past few months pale in comparison to what’s been rolling around in there in shadow for the last decade.
What’s happened in there recently is measurable, definable — to an extent, even understandable.
It’s cancer. Something called stage 1 pilocytic astrocytoma. Doctors caught it on a June night, early enough that it’s treatable — if a little hard to get to — and Anderson is undergoing a prodigious pill regimen and just completed a nine-week round of radiation with a favorable prognosis.
Leave aside the fact Anderson was getting married one week from getting the cancer call. That he’s father to a vivacious 4-year-old daughter. That he has everything in the world to live for, after having already lived through an incomprehensible situation.
“If it’s going to be someone, I want it to be me,” Anderson said. “I would rather myself be put through something like this than my wife or my daughter, or someone else’s son or brother. I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of.”
In short, save pity for someone else. This is far from his first battle.
The attitude is only somewhat more difficult for Anderson’s mother, Lisbeth, to explain.
“It is very hard — no, I won’t say hard — challenging,” she said as she talked about watching her son go through these early stages of his cancer battle. “The faith he has in so many things is beyond words and he is a fighter and everyone around him understands he wants to stay strong for us. But even though he’s a strong fighter, I have to tell him once in awhile that it’s OK to have times when you need to break down or shed a tear. You are human. But that fighting spirit, it always comes through. They tell you in the Army that you never break down, you never say you can’t do it or second-guess yourself. That’s Justin’s attitude.”
Because also up there in his head, in parts even harder to explore, are the memories of another June night, this one in 2003, and a world away.
In 2003, Anderson was 19 and one year removed from his graduation from Bellevue West High School.
He had joined the Army through a delayed enlistment program three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had gone through basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., been stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., with the 41st Infantry and now found himself in Baghdad, attached to B Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Rangers as a weapons specialist.
The goal that night was to apprehend a high-value target, one of the face cards in the infamous deck of Iraqi belligerents. In a high-rise apartment building, five-man teams would clear two apartments each and then get out.
Anderson was in a team with his best buddy in the Army, a Texan named James Frantz, with whom he’d trained in basic and gone to Ranger school.
As the soldiers approached the first apartment, Frantz was to be the first man in. Anderson would be right behind him. The specifics of the mission were only recently declassified.
“He kicked the door in and we immediately started taking fire,” Anderson said. “But the AK this guy was using jammed up. I took the barrel and that may have unjammed a round because the next shot went into my kneecap.”
The gunman kept shooting and Anderson’s chest plate absorbed another three slugs from the rifle. He went down in the hallway and, thinking himself uninjured, called for medical personnel to attend to Frantz.
As he did so, another apartment door opened and a grenade was tossed out into the hallway. Anderson rolled on top of Frantz to shield his friend from the blast. Shrapnel peppered Anderson’s back and caught his left eye.
Medics got Anderson on a stretcher and onto a transport vehicle bound for a forward support hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Anderson’s heart stopped once along the way and CPR was necessary to resuscitate him. Once at the hospital, it stopped again.
Doctors stabilized Anderson, and he endured the first of six surgeries in the Green Zone. He refused to be transported to Germany as most of the wounded were, adamant that he would do his convalescence and rehabilitation in country rather than leave his unit. His lieutenant backed him up, and the doctors eventually stopped arguing.
Anderson’s friend, Frantz, didn’t make it. Over the next nine months, before he was recirculated stateside in March 2004, Anderson tussled with survivor’s guilt. It only got worse when he got home. Post-traumatic stress disorder led him down some dark roads.
In the years since that Baghdad night in the high-rise apartment, Anderson said he’s battled plenty of demons in his head, not unlike many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“‘Why me?’ That’s the million-dollar question,” Anderson said. “The guy with the wife and two kids doesn’t get to come home and me, a 19-year-old kid with no family but my immediate family does?”
He came back home and tried to get on with the business of living again.
He got a degree in project management from Bellevue University in 2010, but didn’t want a desk job or to be farmed into a cubicle. He missed the action. After feeling cast adrift in a sales position, Anderson packed up and left home again, this time bound for the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix.
It was there he met Kristen, the woman who would become the mother of his daughter, Lylah, and his wife. He also started to stare down some of his demons. He sought help where he could. But barred from disclosing the specifics of his wounding, Anderson could only talk in generalities about what amounted to a living nightmare on a near-constant rewind in his head.
“I’m very good at hiding things,” Anderson said. “I don’t think anyone saw the alcohol abuse, the prescription drug problems. I’m thankful my wife didn’t know me at that time. It’s been that dramatic of a change in my personality and who I am.”
He found great counselors, guys who had been there. Maybe not in Iraq, but Vietnam, where the servicemen had the added burden of returning to a public that spat on them and called them baby-killers.
“I think that was very helpful to me and for other guys in my generation,” Anderson said. “To see what the Vietnam vets went through when they got back. It gave us someone to talk to, someone who had been there and understood it.”
He has also participated in studies on PTSD and helped counsel other vets going through similar situations.
“When I stop to think about it, I’m thankful that I have a physical scar,” Anderson said. “When we go out to a restaurant and people see I have to walk with a cane, they can at least see that. The guy that’s done six tours and doesn’t have a scratch on him — thank God for that, but it’s hard to handle. He’s seen the dead bodies and smelled the burning flesh and has the mental scars nobody can see.
“But I can see it. You look someone in the eyes and they’ve got those demons inside and if you’ve been there, too, you know. You don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else. I want to talk to those guys and I want to talk to anyone who will listen.”
And now this.
A pillbox the size of a small laptop computer sits on Anderson’s kitchen table.
It’s arranged horizontally by days of the week, vertically by time of day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime. In all, Anderson takes 22 pills every day, and in all likelihood, the 29-year-old will take most of these pills for the rest of his life.
Pilocytic astrocytoma is a cancer that mostly affects children and adolescents. But more and more, it’s being diagnosed in veterans of the Iraq War — about a 350 percent increase in males aged 25 to 36. Of those men, 98 percent of them served in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.
“In my mind, it’s like another war injury,” Anderson’s father, Roger Anderson said. “Something happened over there. Between the chemicals and everything else, this is a result of that.”
His son feels that way, too. Was it the burning oil fields? The ubiquitous trash fires? Some sort of undetected chemical weapon that was deployed?
What he doesn’t ask is the “why me?” question about his cancer.
His sister, Amanda Oliver, said when there’s a fight on, her brother doesn’t waste his time wallowing in unanswerable questions.
“He’s treating this just the same as any challenge he’s faced, whether it was in combat or the aftermath,” Oliver said. “As a person, that’s who he’s always been. He doesn’t look back. He faces the situation full-on. That might be easier said than done, but when you look into his eyes and he says we’re going to get through this ... some people never face a situation like he’s been through once in a lifetime. Now it’s happened to him twice, but it’s the best thing he’s taught us: We’ll get through.”
And just like in the Army, there’s been a support system for Anderson along the way. One that may be bigger than he knows.
Sunday, Anderson’s family, along with help from the Bellevue Cafe, Rotella’s Bakery and a host of sponsors and donors to a silent auction, will host a benefit to help Anderson and his family as they all endure his cancer treatments, which have left him unable to work. The spaghetti feed will take place at the Bellevue Volunteer Firefighters Hall, 2108 Franklin St., from noon to 6 p.m.
Anderson’s motorcycle club, the Iron Warriors, along with the general public, have turned out in droves to help donate for the event and a fund has been established through Wells Fargo Bank.
Lisbeth Anderson said the response has been nothing short of miraculous.
“No. 1, I might say it’s not fair, everything that’s happened,” Lisbeth Anderson said. “But the number of people praying for him, the fact that the whole city of Bellevue has rallied around him, the way that Bellevue does, it has left me without words. The good energy far outweighs the negative.”
And Justin Anderson, well, he knows that in his head there now lies hope.
He wants to talk more about his experiences, he wants to share with the guys who were there. He’s already visited with high schoolers about his experiences. If there are more things he can do with drug studies to better understand this form of cancer striking his fellow comrades in arms, he’s going to do it.
“That’s why I do those studies, that’s why I talk to guys with PTSD,” he said. “If what I went through and what I’m going through can help, then that’s what my job is: to help.”