Dying soldier feels "lucky" to say goodbye
BLOOMINGTON (AP) - U.S. Army Col. Dirk Spanton survived three tours and 32 months in Iraq, only to come home and find out that he has just months to live because of cancer.
Still, the 50-year-old husband and father of five says he feels lucky.
"I could have gotten killed while I was over there and not gotten to say goodbye to my family," said Spanton of Bloomington. "This way, I'm lucky. How many people get to say goodbye to their kids, their wife and their family? You don't like the short time frame, but it's at least a time frame."
Spanton lived with the risk of dying every day while serving with the Special Forces in Iraq, where he says he was shot at by insurgents, sent to mine fields to disarm explosives, and once had a rocket-propelled grenade pass within feet of him.
The former ROTC instructor returned home safe on Memorial Day, but within days, he was hospitalized with a mysterious illness. Doctors later diagnosed him with cancer of the liver bile ducts and now say he has six months to live.
Doctors believe that the cancer had been spreading through Spanton's body for a while, but the symptoms of the illness - back soreness and fatigue - were masked by the rigors of combat.
Spanton said his back was sore and he was tired, but it seemed natural since he constantly wore a 40-pound flak vest and slept four to six hours a night.
He said he felt strong before falling ill days after he returned home.
Now, Spanton spends every spare moment with his wife, Julie, and their five children - Ken, 24, Randy, 20, Derek, 17, Craig, 15, and Megan, 9.
Gaunt from chemotherapy, Spanton was back in uniform earlier this month to accept the Army's Legion of Merit Award and Combat Action Badge at his home in Bloomington.
"It's the first time he's put his uniform on since he's been back from Iraq," his wife said, tears streaming down her face. "He's lost 40 pounds already, and he's very disgusted with how he looks in his uniform."
She said her husband is low-key, and initially asked the Army to put the awards in the mail. His superiors turned down the request.
Doctors originally said Spanton would have two months to live after he was diagnosed, but have since changed their estimate to six months. Part of that is due to the chemotherapy, which doctors hope is shrinking the tumor.
"I'm hoping for a couple extra months, maybe longer," Spanton says. "I'll take whatever I can get."
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Our prayers go out to Col. Dirk Spanton and his family.