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Things on my desk

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Let me begin by introducing myself - I'm 1st Lt. Andrew Pineda from the 30th Space Communications Squadron.

You may have seen me this past year at any client service technician and cybersecurity liaison all-call, or any other thing related to cyber security to include training the base-wide cybersecurity liaisons. For the length of my tenure here at Vandenberg, I've been working out of the Wing Cybersecurity Office.

If you and I have ever spoken in my office, you may have noticed that I only have a few items displayed on my desk and my work environment is fairly simple and uncluttered.   There's only enough room to fit in a small briefcase-sized bag. However, you may or may not be aware that those few items - the items that I choose to display and to surround myself with - hold certain significance.

In 2011, I had the pleasure of hearing General Welsh speak to the importance of knowing Airmen, saying "every Airman has a story." For me, these items tell my story.

First, you'll notice a picture of me and my wife. It was taken close to five years ago when we were still dating and my teeth were whiter then. In the photo, we were celebrating her induction into the United States Air Force Academy's Parachute Team Wings of Blue. Pinned up on my wall, there's two ticket stubs to the 2013 National Collegiate Boxing finals, where I won my final national title. In my time at the Air Force Academy, I was a four-time All-American and a three-time national boxing champion in my weight class.

Next, there's a small golden bell - but I'll get back to that later. Finally, there's a kitschy gift from a federal accreditation class that I had taken the first month I had arrived here at Vandenberg. It's a small bottle of hot sauce, and because the class was about risk assessments, the label reads, "Accept the Risk!"

Three weeks after I'd arrived at Vandenberg, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. I complained of chest pains, and after enough was enough, my wife took me into the Lompoc Emergency Room. An X-Ray revealed a tumor about the size of a softball in my chest and I had only just gotten to base. Among the scores of household goods to be unpacked, adjusting to my new job, and a cancer diagnosis, I immediately went into chemotherapy where I was sidelined from the life that I had expected, arriving at Vandenberg.

It's difficult to find the words to describe how life-altering a cancer diagnosis really is. The photo of me and my wife, and especially the boxing tickets remind me of where I've been.  At a point, I was training with Olympians in state-of-the-art facilities. That November I faced complications, throughout my treatment, and became ill with pneumonia. At that point, I considered walking up and down the flight of stairs leading to my bedroom to be "exercise".

In the chemotherapy infusion center, I met so many people whose stories are imprinted in my memory. There was a man who had to have part of his tongue removed. The remaining parts of it were treated with radiation, and as a result, he had lost his ability to taste. There was another man who had cancer in one of his eyes, who also had to receive radiation therapy. Part of this meant that he had to stare at one specific spot or object for about 15 minutes at a time and any movement of his eyes could result in unintended damage to the rest of his eye.

I met so many people, so many faces where these kinds of stories were commonplace. My own chemotherapy regimen was one that required me to be in the infusion center, Monday through Friday, every three weeks. Treatment did not stop during holidays.

This takes me to the little gold bell. That year I spent the Christmas week, and subsequently Christmas day, in chemotherapy. There was an elderly woman, a patient, who came in to the infusion center that day singing "Jingle Bells" completely covered in these little bells. You could hear her down the hall as she walked and moved about. Typically I preferred a quiet environment, one where I could close my eyes and rest, but that day I was amazed at the triumph of this woman's spirit in the face of any and every battle being fought in my heart and in the hearts of the fellow patients.

A few months after treatment ended, I found myself back to work. When I walked into my office, I saw, for the first time in eight months, the stupid hot sauce from the class that I had taken. I had completely forgotten about it.  It's the gate-keeper that separated me from a life "before cancer" and from one "after cancer." And it still says "Accept the Risk!"

There are new meanings to be found in small things like hot sauce and golden bells - maybe Physical Training tests, maybe memorandums for records, maybe emails, maybe phone calls. Every day I face these things and as a result, I try to remind myself that there are larger things at play in our work centers like compassion and empathy. I try to remind myself that every person I interact with has a story.

Now, with a clean bill of health, I am back to work. The daily grind makes it easy to forget about other peoples' stories. The day-to-day tasks might almost seem trivial, an attitude that one would think is easy to adopt especially after an experience like cancer treatment. Instead, I "Accept The Risk" and put my faith in the good people around me and support them because I realize that they are the same ones that support - and continue to support - me.