- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

FORT JACKSON, S.C. | As a mother of three with no health insurance and a low-wage job, 32-year-old Brandielee Marendo was thrilled to get into the Army.

She entered basic training last year full of hopes for a career in computers and high-tech air defense. Then she found a small lump in her breast during the third week of basic training.

A diagnosis of Stage II breast cancer meant a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and what could be years of follow-up medication. But it didn’t mean an immediate discharge.

Pvt. Marendo is now assigned to Fort Jackson‘s “Wounded Warrior Transition Unit,” one of 35 outfits for injured soldiers recuperating from combat, training injuries or any illness that keeps them from serving in their normal units.

“Just because I have this illness doesn’t mean in any way, shape or form that life stops along the way,” Pvt. Marendo said recently as she sat in a military hospital with her weekly dose of medication flowing into a stent in her chest. “I had fun in basic.”

If they can, wounded soldiers take online classes or hold part-time jobs while they heal. Several work as administrative assistants in the sprawling training installation’s offices. One woman stocks shelves in the hospital pharmacy. But medical appointments and physical therapy come first.

Pvt. Marendo is using her free time to complete three online math classes. The education is among the benefits that attracted her to military service after 12 years working at a screen-printing business in Fredericksburg, Va.

“If this had happened to me while on the civilian side, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said of her diagnosis.

Pvt. Marendo lives in a two-bedroom apartment in an area normally reserved for senior officers, so she has the space to have her two sons or daughter visit. While she is recuperating, they stay with relatives in Virginia.

She realizes that her recovery comes first. And if she gets strong enough, she’ll have to start basic training all over, she said.

“I’ll have to start over at Day One,” she said, adding that the prospect doesn’t bother her. “I’m pretty resilient,” she said with a laugh.

Soldiers undergo medical evaluations before they get into the Army, and no cancer was found when Pvt. Marendo first applied to enter. But about 7 percent who enter basic training still have to drop out because of some kind of health problem, Fort Jackson spokeswoman Karen Soule said.

Pvt. Marendo said it helps to put on her Army uniform and keep as regular a schedule as she can.

“I’m very much a realist,” she said. “If you decide to roll over and sleep another 12 hours because you’re angry at the fact that you have cancer, you have the right to. But it’s not going to change the fact that you have it. Period.”

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