FORT HOOD — As far back as he could remember, his mother had been sick.
But Spc. Zachary Jozokos got the surprise of his life when his mom — five years cancer free and 225 pounds lighter — showed up unannounced to his morning physical readiness training formation to work out with him.
The Soldiers of Battery C “Centurion,” 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, were told the unit was being recognized for the support it gave to 3rd Cavalry Regiment on its recent rotation at the National Training Center.
So it came as no surprise when reporters with video cameras showed up at formation and started filming. Meanwhile, Sandra Holloway, disguised as a news reporter, blended into the group of videographers.
“I think he’s going to be very, very excited,” said Holloway, a Boston native.
While Jozokos led the formation, Holloway put down her headphones and camera, got on the ground alongside her son, and began the bent-leg body twist exercise along with the soldiers.
It wasn’t until she tapped him on the shoulder that he turned and realized the person to his right was his own mother.
“I was in shock, really,” said Jozokos, a fire direction control specialist and Boston native. “I had no idea.”
While he was surprised to see his mother, he was even more shocked and impressed at her ability to do the physical training, a feat she could not have accomplished just 20 months ago.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” he said. “With her health when I was growing up, I didn’t think it would happen, but amazingly she’s done a turnaround.”
And a turnaround it was, indeed.
“I got diagnosed with breast cancer in my early 20s,” she said. “I was really young, and I battled off and on with that for quite a bit of time.”
At 29, she had her daughter Kayleigh, and with pregnancy, she put on more than 100 pounds. Six years later, she had Zachary, and packed on another 80.
Throughout Jozokos’s childhood, his mother’s illness defined his idea of what was normal. The sky was blue. Grass was green. Mom was sick.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but I came through it. I had other family, my grandparents, my sister.”
But Holloway was a mother, even through sickness, and Jozokos picked up that same spirit of perseverance.
“She always took care of us, no matter how sick she was,” he said. “Life’s got struggle. You’ve just got to keep going.”
“The obesity, along with going through chemotherapy, made it very difficult,” she said.
But when she finally entered remission in 2004, she started on the road to wellness when her doctors recommended she have a gastric bypass.
“I lost quite a bit of weight,” she said. “But within three years, I put a good portion of it back on. I lost about 152. I put over 100 back on within two years.”
Holloway said she needed to change her thought process before losing the weight.
“It’s really not about the weight,” she said. “It’s about what to do with your head.”
After another bout with cancer in her mid-40s, Holloway decided to take another stab at losing weight.
“I started walking,” she said. “On a Monday, I went out for a walk, decided to do a little jog and Tuesday afternoon, I woke up in the (Coronary Care Unit.) I don’t remember how I got there. I was diagnosed with heart failure at 45 years old, and that now will be the rest of my life.”
When Jozokos joined the Army, Holloway was on oxygen and had nursing care six days a week.
“It wasn’t easy, but my step-dad came into our lives about six or seven years ago,” he said. “He’s always taken care of her, and he’s done a good job. He’s a good guy, so I knew she was going to be alright.”
Even with the limitations of heart failure — she can’t allow her heart rate to get above 100 beats per minute — she was determined to lose the weight.
“With chemo, you can make yourself do things and there’s no repercussion,” she said. “You can’t make your heart do something it doesn’t want to do, because it will win. So it’s very frightening. But I just started to exercise a little bit more, a little bit more, walking, and I started losing weight and changing my attitude.”
And that attitude adjustment saw a 358-pound woman — a woman who just 20 months ago couldn’t walk across a room in her 900 square-foot house without help, who went from 19 medications down to five, who did it all without cardio — lose a total of 226 pounds and complete two sets of 25, four-count half-jacks with her only son during Army physical training.
“Only my mother would do this, I’ll tell you that,” Jozokos said. “She’s come a long way. I’m really proud of her.”
Holloway said in talking to her daughter about this visit that she recognized how hard her children’s childhood was.
“I said, ‘You guys had such a hard time. I just really want to be that mom that you can be proud of, and not have to worry about anymore,’ and my daughter said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’ve never not been proud of you.’ And I’m starting to understand that.”
Even when she may have doubted herself though, deep down, Jozokos said he’s always had faith in his mother.
“She’s always had the fire in her,” he said. “That’s what’s kept me going.”