In early 2014, as his Oklahoma Air National Guard unit ramped up for a Middle East deployment, Senior Airman Jesse Daniels noticed he wasn’t feeling well.
He got tired after just a few minutes on his feet. He couldn’t walk more than 20 feet without getting winded and feeling his heart racing.
He never made it to the Middle East. But Daniels still found himself in a fight for his life.
The Oklahoman reports that eventually Daniels, now 27, would be diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.
In the meantime, Daniels, who serves with the 219th Engineering Installation Squadron, an Oklahoma Air National Guard unit based in Tulsa, learned he can expect to be cut from the National Guard rolls later this year, meaning he’ll lose his health insurance at the time he needs it most.
“I’m not looking for special favors or special treatment because I have cancer, but a fair shot at anything would be nice,” Daniels said. “It just seems like a crooked deal to have health insurance, but if you get sick, they can kick you out of the military.”
An Oklahoma National Guard spokesman said he empathizes with Daniels, but there is little the National Guard can do given that the airman no longer is medically fit to serve. He said Daniels will be eligible to extend his military health coverage temporarily once he leaves service, but it’s only for a limited time.
“I know that’s not a long-term solution for the airman, but that’s how the system has been established,” Guard spokesman Col. Max Moss said.
Before his unit deployed, Daniels was in school at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology. To stay in shape for deployment, Daniels and a friend ran several times a week, sometimes up to six or eight miles a day. But after a while, Daniels noticed he was slowing down. Then, he couldn’t finish a 1.5-mile run. Meanwhile, his running partner was making steady improvement.
“He kept getting better and better, and I kept getting worse and worse,” Daniels said.
Halfway through their workouts, Daniels would need to stop and take a break. Some days, he would lie on the floor for a moment’s rest and fall asleep. He knew something was wrong, he said, but he assumed it was just stress. At the time, Daniels was going to school full time, working at his church and preparing for deployment. He must have overextended himself, he thought.
After about a month, Daniels went to a doctor. After running several tests, the doctor determined he was anemic. Soon after, a colonoscopy showed a large tumor in Daniels’ colon. Doctors told him it needed to be removed immediately. Even if the surgery was successful, doctors told Daniels he had a difficult road ahead of him.
“They told me it was bad, and it was going to be bad,” he said. “And they were right.”
Daniels and his wife, Kristin, purchase health insurance through Tricare, the Defense Department’s insurance provider. After Daniels got his diagnosis, he called Tricare, and a representative assured him that his treatments would be covered. Later that month, just after his 25th birthday, Daniels had surgery to have the tumor removed.
In the two years since then, Daniels has been in and out of the emergency room several times. He’s had abdomen spasms that are so painful that he has to be hospitalized. Last year, doctors thought Daniels’ gallbladder was inflamed. So Daniels went in for another operation, but surgeons weren’t able to remove the organ because of scar tissue and other problems related to his chemotherapy.
All through his recovery, Daniels’ National Guard unit didn’t require him to attend monthly drill weekends. But last November, the unit’s leaders started asking questions about when he thought he could come back. He didn’t have an answer for them. Even when he wasn’t in the hospital, Daniels was almost always in pain, and chemotherapy left him exhausted.
“It felt like I was running a marathon all the time,” he said.
So earlier this year, Daniels was given a choice: Either leave the military, or submit himself for an evaluation system that would determine whether he was fit to stay in the National Guard. Oklahoma National Guard officials forwarded Daniels’ case to the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., where the National Guard surgeon general declared him unfit for duty.
Moss, the Oklahoma National Guard spokesman, said Daniels’ case now will go to a U.S. Air Force evaluation board. If that board agrees that Daniels is unfit for duty, he will be allowed to appeal that decision to yet another evaluation board. If his appeal is denied, Daniels will be discharged.
Even if he is discharged, Daniels wouldn’t necessarily lose his health insurance immediately, Moss said. He would be eligible to continue to purchase health insurance under the Defense Department’s Continued Health Care Benefit Program. But that program only would cover Daniels for 18 months after he leaves the National Guard, Moss said. After that, he would be cut off.
Moss acknowledged that losing his health insurance in the middle of a major illness would leave Daniels in a difficult position and said he was sympathetic to his situation. But because Daniels’ illness isn’t duty-related, there isn’t much the National Guard can do for him once that 18-month window closes, Moss said.
Ron Abrams, joint director of the nonprofit National Veterans Legal Services Program, said Daniels’ situation likely leaves him with little legal recourse.
If a military service member is injured while serving on active duty, he or she is entitled to free health care through the Veterans Affairs Department. But because Daniels is a part-time National Guard airman and his illness isn’t related to his service, his treatment wouldn’t be covered by the VA, Abrams said.
That 18-month window would buy Daniels and his wife enough time to consider their options, but it doesn’t solve their problem, he said. Daniels can’t work because of his illness and medication he takes to manage his pain. Daniels’ wife is a teacher in Checotah, but Daniels said the two couldn’t afford to buy health insurance through the school district if they’re depending only on her paycheck.
Daniels looked into buying health coverage through the federal marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act, but even that seems out of reach with only one income between the two of them, he said. Daniels’ wife set up a GoFundMe.com account to try to raise money for his health care costs.
Daniels said he’s disappointed he isn’t able to continue his military career, but he recognizes that he shouldn’t be there if he isn’t physically able to serve. But he feels like he’s fallen through a crack in the system, and he’s frustrated that he may lose his health insurance simply because he got sick.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Daniels said. “I’ve committed no crimes, I served with honor, I did everything I was asked to do. I just got cancer.”