Moody flight engineer defeats cancer, returns with 'Survivor Flight'

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
It had been 24 months and 12 days since one of his doctors told him he had cancer in his neck, that he would most likely be medically discharged and should probably forget about ever flying again. 

But as he stood in the sunshine beside his Pave Hawk, preparing for his return to flying status, Master Sgt. John Buckler, HH-60G flight engineer and cancer survivor, admitted he'd been waiting for this day the entire time. 

In January 2005, he was diagnosed with nasal pharyngeal carcinoma, which is a cancer of the sinuses. 

"I only asked myself 'why me' once; that was the day I was notified it was cancer," said Sergeant Buckler. "After that I said 'why not me,' I'm nobody special, thousands of people get cancer and survive." 

Sergeant Buckler refused to even inquire what his odds were. He knew what he needed to do, and he never looked back. 

"I never asked the doctors what the survival rate for this cancer was, it didn't matter to me," he added. "I accepted the fact I had this and knew I was going to survive the whole process, regardless of what they told me. I just kept saying, 'It's water off a duck's back.' It might be water off a ducks back in a hurricane, but it's still just water off a duck's back."
His first decision was whether or not he would stay in the military. 

"I had 19 years and six months of service behind me, and there were doctors on my evaluation board trying to medically retire me," said Sergeant Buckler. "Without the tremendous support of my commanders; without them writing letters of recommendation to the board to keep me in the Air Force, I would have been medically retired." 

Immediately after his diagnosis, he was sent to Wilford Hall Medical Center, Texas, for an exhaustive and draining six months of chemotherapy, said Sergeant Buckler. He also became part of a test study for a new type of treatment known as intensity-modulated radiation therapy. IMRT uses computer-controlled X-rays to deliver multiple precisely-shaped beams of radiation into a tumor. 

The combination of chemotherapy and IMRT took its toll, the sergeant said. 

"They had to shoot some of the radiation through my ears. That destroyed my hearing so badly I need to use hearing aids," said Sergeant Buckler. "Also, my salivary glands were damaged, but I'm OK if I chew gum. On top of all that, the chemo damaged my nerves and my fingers tingle all the time." 

The science of beating cancer often uses toxins to kill tumors faster than the patients. For Sergeant Buckler, his team of doctors won the race. As of September 2005, doctors have detected no traces of cancer. 

With his cancer gone, Sergeant Buckler then turned his energy toward returning back to flying status. With the written support of his treatment team and their confidence in his potential to return, his records went before the medical board to plead his case. 

The board agreed with his doctors. In January, he was placed on a non-deployable flying status with the expectation of a full return to unlimited duty within a year. 

As soon as word got out Sergeant Buckler was back "on status" and ready for a flight, one of Sergeant Bucklers co-workers, Maj. Robert Remey, HH-60G pilot and the 347th Operations Group standardization and evaluation chief, made it clear he was going to be there. 

"This is a big day for him and I'm glad I could be a part of it," said Major Remey. "I know what he went through." 

Major Remey is a fellow cancer survivor, having beaten melanoma and returned to flying status in 2003. Sergeant Buckler worked with the pilot at the 41st RQS and was a big source of support while he was fighting his own battle to get back in the air. 

Now, Major Remey got to repay the favor. 

"I wouldn't have had this any other way," said Major Remey. "I was going to be on that flight." 

The entire flight engineer community pulled together to make Sergeant Buckler's return a success, said Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Hoskinson, the 41st Rescue Squadron's senior enlisted advisor. 

"Every time one of our flight engineer instructors had a spare moment, Sergeant Buckler would be here, working with them to re-learn the systems and procedures he needed to know," said the chief. "It feels like the entire squadron is behind him coming back." 

On Feb. 22, Major Remey and Sergeant Buckler were together in the air again. The four-hour mission went far more smoothly than anyone had hoped for. 

"He did very well," said Major Remey. "I would already rank him as being as competent and capable as any of our other flight engineers." 

As for Sergeant Buckler, he is much more comfortable being labeled with the title 'flight engineer' than 'cancer survivor.' 

"It felt like I never left," said Sergeant Buckler. "I'm glad to be back in the air. I feel confident there is no reason I shouldn't be able to keep flying from now on."