News: Cavalry officer weighs tough decision
By: Staff Sgt. Pat Caldwell
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — First Lt. Nathaniel Neff is very familiar with scripture. As a part-time pastor at a church in his hometown of Baker City, Ore., the executive officer of Company F, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), is well versed in the stories in the Bible of blessings, righteousness and, of course, tests of faith.
Neff said that he felt he understood his own deep devotion to God before deploying to Iraq. Now, though, he can recognize how quickly his faith can be tested in the aftermath of the news that his wife, Kristin, has cancer. And if he knows about a test of faith, he can also distinguish, more than ever, the conflict between his duty to his soldiers and the Army, and his own personal vow of loyalty to his Family. For Neff and the men and women in F Company, the upcoming Relay for Life at Joint Base Balad March 26-27 carries special, solemn meaning.
“You don’t expect it [cancer] to invade your family,” said Neff. “It hit me pretty hard.”
Neff, who is also a registered nurse at the St. Alphonsus Hospital in Baker City, said doctors identified a problem with his Kristin’s thyroid gland before he departed with the 3rd Battalion from Camp Shelby, Miss., for Iraq in November.
Back then, though, Neff said he and his family hoped an operation planned for February to remove Kristin’s thyroid would be successful. After her thyroid was removed, doctors discovered it was cancerous, he said.
“There was always that chance, but you always hope it won’t be you,” he added.
Neff said the diagnosis sparked a number of compelling challenges for his family, but that his faith made a difference.
“I do start my day with prayer,” he said. “That get’s my day going. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve had to call on God throughout each day. He is my strength.”
Faith, he said, is a bond in his family. Early on, Neff said he and Kristin talked about whether he should try to come home in the wake of the cancer diagnosis, which he said his command supported. For Neff, it was a wrenching decision and the stakes were obvious: his four children and his wife, or his company. In the end, Neff and Kristin decided it was best if he stayed on until his leave later this month.
“She supports the decision because she knows I have a desire to finish this mission,” said Neff. “We were given the option to go home, but I’m committed. She is strong, but it has been hard on her and me.”
Neff said he and Kristin are hopeful the cancer treatments will erase the risk of the disease. However, if Kristin isn’t better when he returns home on leave, Neff said he will face another set of decisions.
“There is a strong chance [that] after these treatments, she will be okay,” he said. “But if her condition worsens, I won’t be coming back.”
Neff said he simply could not turn his back on his company or the mission in Iraq, one he deems to be very important.
“I believe God put me here for a reason; he has me here for a purpose,” he said.
He added that he takes solace in the fact that the congregation of his church, the Lighthouse Church in Baker City, has been very compassionate toward Kristin.
“The church family has been there for her,” he said. “She is very connected to them.”
One of the hardest issues revolved around his children, he added.
“They are having a hard time,” said Neff. “All they know of cancer is a friend of ours who died of it. It is a challenge to get them to understand Mom is not in the same boat.”
Despite the obvious hardship of being away from his wife, Neff said he remains optimistic. That confidence is rooted in his own faith.
“I know God will not put more on us than we can handle,” he said.