Posted on April 06, 2016
After eight years of service in the Marine Corps that included two deployments to Iraq, Staff Sergeant Tito Williams’ life took a stunning turn.
“I found out about the Hodgkin’s in February 2006, after my second combat tour.”
The South Carolina native had joined the Corps a few months after graduating high school, on November 19, 1998—“I wanted a better opportunity, I wanted to get out and see the world”—and first went to Iraq in March 2003.
“I was in communications,” he explains, “We set up UHF and VHF communications links to communicate unit to unit, and to establish lines of communications from regimental to the higher ups, and within the small units and upper echelon units.
“I was kind of like an infantryman with a radio backpack,” Tito continues. “It was challenging. The gear was heavy—you have an extra 45 pounds of radio equipment.”
For his second tour of Iraq in late-2005, Tito remained in communications, but was serving more as a liaison.
“I went out with a satellite and a computer,” he explains. “We did night missions, we’d spend two or three hours a night patrolling. I also provided communications back to headquarters.”
While his service in Iraq resulted in post-traumatic stress, Tito suffered no major physical injuries during his deployments. But just a few weeks after returning to the States in December 2005, the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system—turned his life upside-down.
“Luckily it was caught early enough,” he says. “I was able to receive treatment. I got six months of chemotherapy and I went into remission. Then, about a year and a half after my last treatment, it metastasized throughout my whole body. I got a heavy dose of chemo and also a stem cell transplant—it was in my bone marrow—and I’ve been in remission since 2008.”
The Semper Fi Fund supported Tito by providing financial assistance that allowed his mother and sister to be at his bedside and help him in his battle against Hodgkin’s while he was in the hospital receiving treatments. We also assisted him with a transition grant that facilitated his relocation to Tampa, Florida, and we’ve helped him with car repairs as well as a bike grant so he could continue his recovery (and enjoy a bit of recreation) with Team Semper Fi.
“Last year I did the bike tour through the five boroughs of New York,” Tito says of his Team Semper Fi experience. “I’ve participated in a running event, I did a golfing event with them, and I also did the Tunnel to Towers 5k run to honor Stephen Gerard Siller—he’s a firefighter who, on 9/11, ran from Brooklyn, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and to the World Trade Center, where he died saving others.” Tito has also run 2-half marathons this year, in Arizona and New Orleans, and has been snowboarding in Aspen, Colorado.
Having received his Master’s degree in social work in 2014, Tito currently works full-time at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“For me, it’s like giving back,” says Tito, who is also training to be an amateur boxer in his spare time. “I wasn’t able to serve 20 years in the Marine Corps, but I can share my experience and time and my clinical knowledge. I help transition veterans out of the military and into the VA system.”
Through it all, though, there’s always the possibility that the Hodgkin’s will resurface.
“I think the cancer thing taught me that as much as we think we’re in control, we really aren’t,” Tito reflects. “I was the picture of health before I got diagnosed, but that didn’t stop me from having the disease. Knowing that gave me a better sense of faith, of knowing that things will happen in life, and you have to attack them as they come, and you can’t control them.”
“At the end of the day,” he adds, “whatever is gonna happen is gonna happen—be patient and let things play out the way they will. Because no matter what you’re going
through, there’s hope in life. I tell everyone: I’m a walking testimony, there’s hope always. Stay resilient. Stay focused. Don’t give up.”