MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
He began his Air Force career as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist – an Airman trained to survive and operate in all conditions and teach others to do the same.
Second lieutenant Roger Zehr, now an officer in charge of operations intelligence with the 6th Operations Support Squadron, spent years honing his skills, overcoming obstacles, and learning to thrive in any situation; however, nothing prepared him for a diagnosis his son received during his time stationed at Beale Air Force Base, California in 2014.
“I was tasked with a temporary duty assignment (TDY) to teach the SERE 7-level career development course at Fairchild Air Force Base, when my son Alexander started showing some symptoms,” said Zehr. “Throughout his life, my son never really got sick, but he started complaining about pain in his legs.”
Zehr was joined by his wife Nelcy and his son while temporarily assigned to Fairchild AFB. The pain in Alexander’s legs raised concerns, but it was when his body temperature read 105 degrees that Zehr knew something was terribly wrong.
“We took him straight to a hospital in Seattle, to find out what was happening,” recalled Zehr. “After the news we received while there, I never returned to Fairchild to teach the course, my leadership told me they would take care of it.”
Alexander was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that usually affects the adrenal glands. This diagnosis was followed by a statistic, stating Alex had a 40 percent survival rate.
“Once I heard the statistic, I was filled with so much anger,” said Zehr. “I didn’t want to hear a number, I wanted a solution.
“I wanted the best for my son, so I began doing research of my own.”
Through his research, Zehr discovered one of the best doctors for treating neuroblastoma in the world was located at Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. There, Alexander underwent two years of cancer treatments, ranging from chemotherapy and surgeries to radiation and full bone marrow transplants.
“At first, we felt alone, but during all this my leadership at Beale was helping out behind the scenes,” said Zehr. “We were staying in a hotel and we had no way of paying for it, or the treatments, but our Air Force family came together and helped with the Air Force Assistance Fund.”
Through the AFAF, Zehr was able to focus on his son’s recovery and not on his finances. His leadership had it under control, and everything would be resolved when Zehr returned. Zehr was placed on TDY status throughout the two years of treatment. His leadership required Zehr to check-in occasionally, but Beale was only two hours away.
“It was incredible knowing how much support we had from them,” said Zehr. “That was when I realized how important the Air Force family is, and how our branch of service takes care of its own.”
During the treatment process, Zehr realized that his career as a SERE specialist had the possibility of ending before he wanted to and before Alexander fully recovered.
“It was likely that I would reach my high year of tenure, and be forced to retire, but I didn’t want to get out,” said Zehr. “I decided to commission, so I could continue to serve and give back to the organization that gave so much to me and my family.
“There was also the scenario of Alex having additional issues in the future, but if I’m retired, how would I help him?”
However, just three days after graduating Officer Training School as a second lieutenant, Zehr flew straight to San Francisco to meet his wife and see his son ring the bell at Benioff, stating that he was officially cancer free, Nov. 4, 2016.
“Prior to marrying Roger, I never had any contact with the military, no one in my family served,” said Nelcy Rivera, Zehr’s wife and Alex’s mother. “But now, the military is everything.
“Just seeing how much they did for us makes me extremely grateful for the AFAF and their support kept our family together through Alexander’s entire treatment.”
Since Alex’s treatments are over, Zehr and his wife are working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, to help others who go through the same pain. Zehr also cannot stress the importance of the AFAF enough.
“I firmly believe that the AFAF empowered my leadership to do all the amazing things they did,” said Zehr. “Without it, I’m sure they would’ve found a way to help, but the assistance fund made it so much easier to help my family.
“Any size donation to the cause makes a huge impact to another Airman, just as it did for me.”