- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

It is an honor carried out by the soldiers of the Army’s oldest infantry regiment - to salute the departing president as he leaves the nation’s capital, while helping welcome his replacement.

Stricken with a cancer that’s rare in the United States, it is an honor that Lt. Col. Jaime Martinez almost missed.

“This is a lethal cancer. Tumors grow in your head and neck, and there is no easy way to attack it,” said Col. Martinez, who credits the doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with saving his life. “They got me back in the fight in 100 days.”

On Tuesday, Col. Martinez will command hundreds of soldiers from the Old Guard, which stand watch daily at the Tomb of the Unknowns and bury the dead at the National Cemetery, as they carry out their duties at the inauguration of a president.

Radio in hand, Col. Martinez will guide his intensely polished and practiced soldiers through the record-setting crowd to each assignment, ensuring they are in place to carry the country’s colors to the Capitol in the inaugural parade, and later, at the many inaugural balls.

Among their other ceremonial duties Tuesday: standing watch at Andrews Air Force Base to salute George W. Bush as he boards a military plane and leaves Washington.

Col. Martinez, 44, grew up in Chicago and started his career in the Army 23 years ago after graduating from Eastern Illinois University. Enlisting as a private eventually led to an airborne combat jump into Panama, elevation to officer, a law degree and service on the personal staff of Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

Eight months ago, the paratrooper who fought insurgents in Iraq and Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan wasn’t sure he would live long enough to see the next president inaugurated. On the same night he graduated from law school, he discovered a lump in his neck.

Within a week, he had become one of a handful of soldiers diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer.

The disease is uncommon in the United States. It is found more often among people in Central Asia, North Africa and China and has been linked to a diet of salt-cured fish and meat, according to the American Cancer Society. Maj. Mark Roschewski, who treated Col. Martinez at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said doctors there only see one or two cases a year.

While undergoing two rounds of aggressive therapy over four months, Col. Martinez became a shell of the warrior. The chemotherapy had left him with gray skin, a gaunt face and a raspy voice instead of his normally animated baritone.

He took command of the 4th Battalion of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment - the formal name for the Old Guard battalion - in October, before his treatment was complete.

Along with ceremonial duties, the unit will help provide security and medical care as a crowd that’s expected to measure in the millions gathers on the Mall to watch Barack Obama deliver his first speech as president.

“Life continues,” he said. “I have no qualms, and I am truly blessed with unbound opportunities and the privilege to serve. The hardest fights, I believe, are yet to come.”

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