ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan - As a team leader on his third deployment, Sgt. Nathan Thornton lead soldiers through almost every type of mission imaginable. His success during these missions relied heavily on his soldiers' willingness to follow their noncommissioned officer's lead.
In October, while on his second deployment to Afghanistan, serving as a member of the Aerial Reaction Force for 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Thornton asked his soldiers to follow him down a road they never planned to travel, to help fight an enemy they knew little about.
While scrolling through his Facebook page, Thornton came across a picture of his long-time friend Anna Stephens standing alongside her mom. The mom was showing off a newly shaved head while the caption explained she was doing it to support Anna in her fight against cancer.
Unsure about how he could help Anna in her fight, Thornton rallied his squad and asked them to join her fight by shaving their heads as a sign of support.
“You see people all the time who have cancer, but when you know the person, it is a whole new perspective,” Thornton said. “All I had to do was mention it to my guys, and they quickly jumped on board. Some had family members who fought a similar battle, while some just knew it was the right thing to do.”
Private Keifer Brown, a San Diego native on his first deployment, was among the 15 soldiers who jumped at the opportunity to support their fellow battle buddy’s cause.
“My first thought when he asked us was, ‘let’s do it’,” Brown, a gunner for the 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd IBCT, said. “I thought it was a great way for us to show our support from overseas.”
While Brown shaved his head to support Anna in her fight, he was also doing it for someone very special back home.
“Being able to show this kind of support was important to me because I have family members who also battled cancer, including my mom who is battling it now,” Brown said.
Word of the unit’s selfless actions quickly spread across forward operating bases in Afghanistan and, within just a few days, leaders in Thornton’s unit were lining up to show their support.
“When they told me the reason, I agreed to do it immediately,” 1st lt. John Lystash, platoon leader for Alpha Battery, 1st Bn. 6th FA Regt., 3rd IBCT, said. “I think that I surprised my Soldiers that I did not put up more of a fight about it.”
“My Soldiers do so much for me, it was too easy for me to honor their request,” he added.
Since October, word about their support for Anna has made it back stateside and, while their actions are inspiring others. the Duke Soldiers are finding their own inspiration from those whom they are supporting.
“Anna is very important to me and her fight against cancer makes our fight in Afghanistan seem less important,” Thornton, a Cynthiana, Ky., native said. “Even though we may be in a combat area, Anna’s fight for survival has just as much importance to me and my Soldiers as our fight for freedom, and we will do whatever we can to help.”
With more than 1,000,000 new cancer cases showing up each year in the U.S., the Fort Knox-based soldiers understand a simple haircut and supportive sign isn’t a long term answer, but that’s not stopping them from trying.
“We don’t expect our actions to have a long term impact, but if it makes just one of her days better it was worth it,” Lystash said.