Cancer Can't Stop Guardsman From Deploying
by Maj. Robert Taylor Idaho, Army National Guard
June 9, 2021
Cassandra Cridland has known her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Cridland, since junior high.
“The thing to know about my husband is he’s just committed to life,” she said. “Whatever he’s doing in the moment, he’s fully committed to that. If he says he’s going to conquer something, you might as well stand out of his way. He’s going to do exactly that. Whether it’s cancer, going on a deployment or mowing the yard.”
Cridland was diagnosed with Stage 4A squamous cell carcinoma in February 2009. In September 2010, he deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation New Dawn.
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Wayne Cridland at Camp Victory in Iraq on January 18, 2011. Cridland deployed with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation New Dawn in September 2010 after spending 2009 fighting cancer. (Courtesy photo by Wayne Cridland)
“That’s what we train to do,” Cridland said. “As an NCO, I didn’t want another NCO leading my guys into combat and being responsible for them. If something happened to them, I didn’t want that responsibility on someone else’s shoulders who hadn’t spent a lot of time with them.”
Cridland said the cancer started in his left tonsil and then spread to the left side of his face, jaw, tongue and neck. His doctors proposed an aggressive treatment plan that gave Cridland an 85 percent chance of surviving. For eight weeks, Cridland was to receive radiation every day and chemo every Monday for five hours. Cridland said he had an IV port inserted into his heart to accept the chemo because the heart’s vessels are bigger than other blood vessels, which allows them to handle more damage from the chemo.
At seven weeks, Cridland said the treatment was causing him more harm than the cancer was, so his doctors had him take a week off. At that time, his chances of surviving dropped to 14 percent.
Cridland finished the last week of treatment in June and said he was given six months to live. He had shrunk in size from 190 pounds to 124 pounds while receiving treatment. He had a feeding tube for nearly three months because scar tissue from the radiation made it impossible for him to swallow. After it was removed, he had to learn to chew and swallow again. His doctor wasn’t sure he would be alive for Christmas. Cridland had other plans. He quickly went back to work and working out.
“I told him I didn’t have time for that and I was too dumb to die,” he said. “My wife absolutely wouldn’t let me quit. Every time I got down, my wife was there to remind me I had things to live for and keep me going.”
Cassandra said she deals with stress by walking and that while Cridland slept after treatment, she’d walk nine or 10 miles a day.
Cridland said he only missed drill once due to the cancer. He was hellbent on deploying with his unit, the Idaho Army National Guard's B Company, 145th Brigade Support Battalion, even as doctors told him they didn’t think it was possible.
“By the time he finished treatment, he needed something he could face head on,” Cassandra said. “He was completely out of control of the outcome of his treatment and he needed something he felt like he had some control over and I respected that. The deployment was something he needed. Doctors kept telling him he wasn’t going and he kept saying, ‘yes I am, just watch me.’”
Cridland said he argued with his doctors to clear him to deploy.
"I said, ‘if you can’t give me a medical reason why I can’t deploy, you need to deploy me.’ I think it was because I kept bugging them, they gave in and let me go. There was no medical reason for me not to go.”
Cridland deployed with the rest of the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in September 2010. The brigade trained at the Orchard Combat Training Center in Boise and at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, before deploying to Iraq.
ONE A SOLDIER, ALWAYS A SOLDIER
Cridland enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard in 2007 as a 91B wheeled vehicle mechanic. He previously served in the U.S. Army from 1985 to 1991. After a divorce that left him with primary custody of three children under the age of five, he decided to get out of the Army. With his children grown and 9/11 still on his mind, he joined the National Guard.
“I’m from that age group where you don’t attack America and get away with it,” he said. “I was still young enough to come back in, so I reenlisted.”
Cridland was nearly 40 at the time. He said he showed up to the recruiting station with long hair and no one thought he was serious about enlisting until he produced his DD-214, indicating he had previously served.
“I like serving my country and knowing we’re making a difference,” he said. “In the National Guard, we can serve the public with snow removal, firefighting support and those type of missions, and we’re available for combat if we’re needed. A lot of it is just giving back to the community and supporting them when they need us.”
Cridland said the biggest difference between serving in the 80s and post-9/11 was the Army’s change of mission. Cridland was a mechanic for an infantry line unit during his first stint in the Army. He said training focused on defeating Russia in the Cold War. His mission in Iraq was largely convoy security and escorting VIPs in an urban environment.
Cridland was a squad leader during the deployment as his unit conducted more than 260 convoys along the 17-miles between Camp Victory and Baghdad’s Green Zone. For most missions, he was the convoy commander with 11 other Soldiers. He said most days were uneventful, with one exception.
On July 7, 2011, part of his team was hit by an IED, which claimed the lives of Specialists Nathan Byers and Nicholas Newby. The Soldiers were the brigade’s only two causalities during the deployment. Byers was 24. Newby was 20.
“I had known Byers for quite a few years,” he said. “That hit me hard. He was a good kid.”
Cridland, and the other part of his team, responded to the scene in just minutes to assist with fire support and security.
During the deployment, Cridland checked in monthly with the local aid station to have his throat inspected once a month to ensure the cancer hadn’t grown back. It still hasn’t grown back, though he lives with what he describes as low-grade pain all the time due to the damage the chemo caused his muscles and joints. His heart and lungs are both scared as a result as well.
Cridland’s two sons also deployed with his company. They were assigned different missions to prevent the family from being involved in the same mass casualty event. Cridland would see his oldest son, Michael, occasionally and his youngest son, James, fairly often as they were located at the same staging area.
While the three were deployed, Cridland’s daughter got engaged and planned her wedding for the day after her dad and brothers were scheduled to return home. Cassandra said she ended up having to delay the wedding by two hours but as soon as the three got home, they changed and Cridland walked his daughter down the aisle.
Cridland said it felt good to be home and that the loss of two Soldiers just weeks before still weighed heavily on his mind without any real closure. He took 45 days off and then went back to work.
'THERE'S MORE HERE THAT I JUST HAVE TO DO'
Cridland said early into his diagnoses, he went to his company’s first sergeant and told him he had cancer and that he didn’t want to get out of the National Guard. Cridland doesn’t know what decisions were made at higher levels, but said his first sergeant and his unit fully supported him and his decision to deploy.
“As long as I was making progress, they kept working with me,” he said.
Cridland said since recovering from cancer and returning home from a deployment, he has become a lot more focused on his relationship with his wife and pursuing his goal to be promoted to first sergeant of the only company he’s served in since 2007.
Cridland met Cassandra in junior high. His now brother-in-law introduced the two because they were both in the school’s band and enjoyed reading. They became friends but didn’t start dating until 1993, after both had married and divorced other people.
“After three years, we decided we probably should just get married because we found a friendship and companionship that felt like a lasting thing and not something that is temporary,” he said. "We work really hard to get through things and not give up.”
“She kept me going. I didn’t want her to end up spending the next 30 to 40 years around without me around.”
After the deployment, Cridland took his wife to Scotland. The two hiked 138 miles in 12 days. He also found a job much closer to his home in Sandpoint, Idaho. He now works as a diesel mechanic for a local mining company. He had previously worked in Wyoming and traveled back and forth during the month.
“I don’t let things worry me as bad as they used to,” he said. “I use to have this since of urgency about everything, now I pick and choose what gives me that sense of urgency. I take things as they come now.”
He plans to stay in the National Guard for as long as he can. He’s currently 54 and could have retired two years ago, but as much as he enjoys his civilian job, he enjoys being around Soldiers more. He plans to deploy with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in 2022.
He’s completed his military education and is his company’s combatives instructor and resilience trainer, efforts he’s made to learn as much as he can while he still serves.
“I had a college teacher who said once you have knowledge, no one can take it from you,” Cridland said. He said whenever you have the opportunity to learn something, you should learn it because then you own it and no one can take it.”
Cridland shares his story with members of his church whenever he can. He tells people not to give up when they are going through tough times. He tells people to keep fighting, knowing he’s made it through his worst days and is around to see his children have children.
“I’m not afraid to die, I just felt like there’s more here that I just have to do,” he said.
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