JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Seth knew something was wrong when a pain in his stomach wouldn’t go away, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Taona Enriquez, 673d Contracting Squadron commander. At first Seth Stambaugh, a technical sergeant and 673d Mission Support Group executive assistant, said he thought it was from a stomach bug he picked up on temporary duty in Indonesia; then he thought it might be kidney stones. He sought emergency medical care several times because he knew something was wrong but couldn’t pinpoint a diagnosis.
In May 2019, Seth was preparing to move to a new duty station with his wife and young son when he returned to a local emergency room and was diagnosed with cancer. Even as he was still processing the news, a team of helpers swiftly assembled to help him and his family through the critical next steps.
Immediately following his diagnosis, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Reah Downs, 673d Medical Group nurse case manager, took action, coordinating with Seth’s family, healthcare providers and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2). Within hours of diagnosis, Seth was admitted to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska.
“It was a fast-moving train and he was in for the fight of his life,” Enriquez said. “Decisions had to be made and they needed to be made fast.”
“He was diagnosed Wednesday night,” she continued. “By Friday, I’m working with Johnny Hernandez [AFW2 recovery care coordinator] and we’re getting his parents on a flight here to be with him. Between Hernandez and the [673d Force Support Squadron] casualty assistance representative Daryl Morgan, we got his mom and dad here Sunday.”
The following day, Monday, Seth was medically transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, with his father, where Seth could receive the best available treatment, Enriquez said.
At Vanderbilt, Seth was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said Seth’s wife, Morgann Stambaugh.
Seth’s wife, mother and son remained in Anchorage to pack up the house with the help of the 673d Logistics Readiness Squadron. By Wednesday, their household goods were completely packed and Seth’s wife, mother and son were on a flight to Tennessee to rejoin their loved one.
Seth received outpatient care at Vanderbilt, living with his parents, wife, son and sister in his childhood home in Springfield, Tennessee, Enriquez said. That June, three generations of Stambaughs — Seth, his father and his son — spent their first Father’s Day together.
“Not once did he or his family think he wasn’t going to beat it,” Enriquez said. “He never acted like he wasn’t coming back.
Seth’s care team started at JBER with his doctor, nurse case manager and squadron commander, and rapidly expanded to include a close-knit Air Force and civilian medical team across four facilities in two states.
Downs coordinated with Seth’s providers to transfer his medical information. AFW2 in Arkansas got involved to help handle non-medical issues. Experts in advanced-stage illness at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, were also brought into the fold.
“So many people did exactly what they were trained to do and they didn’t know how well they were doing it,” Enriquez said.
Despite heroic efforts, cutting-edge treatments and world-class care, Seth’s health became progressively worse and the decision for him to retain his active-duty status or medically retire had to be made. Enriquez said she called a meeting with a team of experts that included Seth’s nurse case manager, recovery care coordinators, physical evaluation board liaison officer, casualty affairs and mortuary affairs to determine what would be best for Seth and his family.
“We looked at Social Security and the support we could give him, at his SGLI [Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance]; we were going through everything,” Enriquez said.
“I walked out of that meeting and his dad was on the phone,” Enriquez said. “He said, ‘I don’t even know how to say this because I’m not giving up on my son, but do we need to retire him?’ I told him, ‘No sir. We’re going to keep him on active duty.’”
Enriquez, who performed Seth’s first promotion ceremony when he was promoted from airman first class to senior airman at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, also performed Seth’s last promotion from staff sergeant to technical sergeant. Enriquez recalled Seth describing how he felt that day by saying, “I love my uniform and I love my country, but today I put on my uniform one sock at a time, and as I put on each sock, I realize how privileged I am to serve our country.”
“We had long conversations about faith and parenting,” said Capt. Jessica Prophitt, the 673d Mission Support Group unit chaplain who worked with Seth at JBER. “He was a joy to talk to and be around. He always had something wise to say, but was always quick to listen as well.”
Seth Stambaugh passed away Dec. 7, 2019, and was laid to rest with full military honors at Springfield Memorial Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee. Prophitt performed Seth’s graveside service and supported the Stambaugh family in the decision process on how to celebrate Seth’s life.
“There was never a day he wasn’t full of optimism from the beginning to the end,” Enriquez said. “There was never a day he wasn’t grateful to everyone caring for him, from the Air Force here at JBER to Vanderbilt to his family. He was full of faith, hope, love and kindness. He was grateful for everyone, from the man putting the needle in his back to the gentleman emptying the trash, that’s who he was.”
Seth’s family also expressed gratitude to everyone who helped make their painful situation easier.
“Knowing that all these people were working behind the scenes, doing all the paperwork so I could focus on taking care of our son and taking Seth to his many appointments, it has eased the burden for us all,” Morgann said. “Even up to this day there are still people taking care of us.”