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NEWS | April 26, 2024

I want to show others you can be resilient no matter what.

By MaryTherese Griffin Army Recovery Care Program

This is a bittersweet story of one Soldier's journey through a health crisis and now a career change but an attitude of gratitude that overshadows the pain. We first met Staff Sgt Daniel Pereyra at the 2024 Army Trials at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. The combat medic shared how he ended up at the Fort Bliss Soldier Recovery Unit. "I was mobilized in 2021 to Fort Bliss for COVID relief; I was assigned to be the task force COVID Battle Sgt. and operational liaison between all the operational facilities. Then, in July 2022, I was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes on the right side of my head. At first, I thought it was an allergic reaction to something because it came on quickly. In a matter of days, it went from Oh, my tongue is kind of dry to it's swollen, and I can't lay down without it blocking my airway."

He went to the ER, where they discovered a mass. "I am so thankful for the division surgeon section because I had lost my primary care manager, who was activated and had to get a new one assigned. It was going to be two months before I could be seen. The division PA assistant, Maj Zebulon Welken, made some phone calls and got me seen in the ENT clinic at William Beaumont within a week. I was now in pain and had to sleep sitting up."

Pereyra would endure a seventeen-hour surgery. "The mass ended up being two inches long, an inch wide, and about a half-inch thick. The surgery was intense," he said.

They took half of his tongue and harvested muscle, tissue, veins & skin from his left arm to rebuild a tongue. "I do have a lisp now. I spent over a year in speech therapy," he said with a smile.

Pereyra says he was fortunate to be at Fort Bliss already and was able to enter managed care at the Soldier Recovery Unit there. He was incredibly thankful for the help he received where his family was concerned because he was from San Diego, and his care had to be immediate. "My supervisor at the time reached out to ensure my parents were being taken care of and informed of my condition. They live in California, and my condition was so advanced that they couldn't send me back home for care. They ensured my parents had transportation and a place to stay; they were great."

As a combat medic, Pereyra was used to caring for Soldiers and helping them stay safe and healthy. Now, he was receiving the care to do just that. He says leadership and cadre knew about his goals. "The Fort Bliss SRU was extremely supportive of my return to work and helped me in the adaptive reconditioning program."

He endured chemo and radiation at the same time after surgery because his cancer was so advanced. "I had to be immobilized for the grafts they had to take. So, to get through the mental resiliency of that, I started creating playlists, so when I was getting chemo, I made playlists to keep me motivated," said the musically inclined medic. He also played the trombone in school and said that choice helped him recover.

"I relied on my music education and concert performance to help me because of the tongue exercises it involved. You have to be able to move your tongue to play trombone. I also spent hours a day practicing vocal exercises. Even though my voice is strange from what it used to be, singing helps you over-announce when you have to perform in a big room."

Through the year-long journey away from home and navigating the unknown, Pereyra says he was overwhelmed by the support around him. "After I was in remission and was well enough to work with the 1st Armored Division, the division surgeon section invited me to come back and work with them. They've been massive supporters of me through this."

Pereyra, an Army Reservist, will not be returned to duty, which he says is the bittersweet part of his journey. "My oncologists said I should make a full recovery, and I love teaching, so I want to help others who may be struggling with cancer or physical setbacks. Despite my meeting medical readiness regulations, they are medically retiring me because I am not considered deployable right now."

Pereyra says he will continue to help others out of the Army and already has a pathway to it. "Back in San Diego, I was a health technician in the school system. I have worked there since COVID hit. The people at Hamilton Elementary have been keeping up with me, supporting me, and hoping I will return to work with them. Also, I want to return to school and become a nurse to be a school nurse."

Daniel Pereyra says he will continue to help others no matter what, and he will not let cancer stand in his way.
"I'm here, I'm back, and I'm still alive! I want to show others that you can be resilient no matter what."