FORT JACKSON, S.C. — While deployed in Iraq in 2007, Army Chaplain Jeremiah Catlin, a Wichita native, discovered a lump growing on his chest. Evacuated to a military hospital, the 32-year-old was told he had Stage 4 melanoma cancer and that he should spend a last Christmas with his family since he had less than a year to live.
“I was crushed,” the chaplain recalled recently. “In my first talks with God, I was sure he’d made the wrong decision, I had so much more to offer.”
That was six years ago.
Since then, Catlin has endured three surgeries, months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation. The treatment drained the once-active student who wrestled and played intramural soccer during his days at Kansas State University. He said he was “devastated, very depressed” and nearly 40 pounds above his normal weight.
But Catlin said the experience also taught him he could still serve as a chaplain. One day in the hospital, a nurse persuaded an older military veteran to sit with him. Catlin said the veteran agreed to take his anti-cancer drugs only if they sat together in the hours they got their intravenous medications.
“I realized God was still going to use me, even if I was hooked up to an IV,” Catlin said.
Catlin, who was trained in civilian life as a Baptist minister before entering the Army, said it began to dawn on him that cancer wasn’t going to keep him from following his passion for counseling soldiers.
With his health improving, he was allowed to return to active duty in 2009. But he was placed on a regimen that sharply curtailed physical activity, meaning he could not be deployed overseas, run or tote a backpack. His doctors feared strenuous activity would cause his blood vessels to burst.
“My greatest time of ministry was in Iraq,” Catlin said. “During combat, ministry increases. And I did not want to leave it.”
So Catlin said he decided to get back in shape, pass the Army’s physical fitness test and maybe even run a marathon held at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway about 70 miles east of Fort Jackson.
“I thought about the Darlington marathon because of the symbolism of me crossing that line,” Catlin said. “They call it ‘The Race Too Tough to Tame.’ ”
The marathon name played off the 60-year-old Darlington Raceway’s nickname of a track, “Too Tough to Tame.”
Catlin said it took him months to build up his strength.
“I couldn’t run a quarter-mile without stopping. My shoulder was hurting where they had separated my pectoral muscle,” Catlin said, showing where doctors had sliced through his upper chest to remove many of his tumors.
He said he worked on his running and fitness while attending advanced classes for senior-level chaplains at the Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson.
In fall 2012, doctors declared him five years in remission and cancer-free.
But to pass the Army’s physical fitness test, Catlin had to run two miles and perform a series of pushups and situps in timed sequence for his age group.
“I supported him. I encouraged him,” said his classmate Chaplain Paul Hur. “I knew what a struggle he was going through, because my daughter had leukemia.”
Hur said he and Catlin both ran the Darlington marathon in late September.
Catlin’s course instructor, Chaplain Martin Kendrick, said ministers at the school “all embraced him” once they learned his story.
“You can’t help but be inspired by him, by his determination, his prayerfulness, his motivation,” said Kendrick, a major. “You can tell that he knows that every day is a blessing.”
Kendrick said that besides running, Catlin is involved in tending to military men and women in “Wounded Warriors” groups, and has ministered in particular to those afflicted with cancer.
Kendrick noted that Catlin has been chosen for promotion to the rank of major, which he will get in early January. Catlin graduated from the Fort Jackson course that Kendrick taught last week, and is headed to a new job at Fort Bragg, N.C., to oversee financial systems for Army chaplains at the huge installation.
He’s in training for another marathon, too, this time in February in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Catlin says he thinks now that his cancer may have been a gift from God.
“Every time I talk to someone with cancer, I think maybe God gave that to me so I can relate to them,” Catlin said. “And if God can use me more by putting me through it, well, praise the Lord for allowing me to have that experience.”