As Sgt. 1st Class Shonta Tucker assists her Fort Hood Warrior Transition Brigade soldier settle into position, she issues a challenge to him: “OK, Spc. Schallberg, three sets of crunches, 20 each.”
The counting begins with a slight pause between each repetition.
“Nineteen, 20, stop,” the soft-spoken, 40-year-old WTB platoon sergeant tells him.
But the 46-year-old Army specialist’s spirit and stubborn determination continues and he adds five to the count.
“Well, OK,” a surprised Tucker says, keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses, along with the potential dangers in exceeding his limit.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he says, confident that five extra crunches aren’t going to shock his system into overdrive and cause a seizure, joking with his platoon sergeant that the extra effort is for that “beach body.”
Two years ago, a physically fit Spc. Mark Schallberg had that beach body and was running marathons side-by-side with soldiers young enough to be his son or daughter. But in February 2013, a week after running a 13.5-mile half marathon, he suffered a grand mal seizure.
No warnings, no headaches. Nothing.
Just a fluke, he says.
Then, on March 1, 2013, a month after the seizure, everything related to time instantly stopped when he received the devastating news: He had a malignant brain tumor.
“That’s the day I quit doing the math,” says Schallberg. Doctors originally thought it was a glioblastoma, a common type of malignant tumor that spreads quickly. “I just thought death since most people die quickly after being diagnosed with a glio.”
Schallberg’s tumor, located primarily in the right parietal lobe, was a huge mass one quarter the size of his brain. A biopsy revealed good news: It wasn’t a glioblastoma, but instead, a stage two astrocytoma tumor that originates from star-shaped cells that make up the brain’s supportive tissue. Radiation to shrink the mass and chemotherapy to kill the cells followed. Most of all, it bought him time. Today, his cancer is in remission with brain swelling controlled with steroid treatments.
“It really is a miracle,” says the former marketing executive from Chicago who enlisted in June 2010 at the age of 40 because he wanted to pursue a career in the emerging field of fiber optics and thought the Army would be a good fit.
The soldier, who was assigned to the 324th Network Support Company, 1st Cavalry Division when he learned he had brain cancer, also enlisted because he was sure he would deploy at some time.
But the cancer got to him first.
“I feel real shorted and guilty that I never had the chance to deploy,” he says, admitting he is sometimes more upset about that than the cancer.
In late 2013, bedridden in a nursing home, Schallberg joined the WTB where his only mission is healing. It is here, he says, where he met his angels: his WTB care team, whom Schallberg credits with helping him and his family, get through one crisis after another.
WTB a Spiritual place
“There’s a spirit and closeness here,” he says, grateful to the individualized care that the WTB provides to its wounded, ill and injured soldiers in their healing, recovery and transitioning. “From the top to the bottom, everyone has backed me 100 percent in what I need.”
Special to that individualized care is Sgt. 1st Class Tucker who studied sports medicine at the College of Charleston, S.C., and now uses that “college knowledge” to design simple workout routines to improve his range of motion and improve his mobility.
“I’ve seen him go from being bedridden to wheelchair to rocker,” she says, adding that she believes that just getting his mobility back has given her soldier hope. “It’s also given me hope because I’ve witnessed his progress, and it inspires me to keep on helping him so he moves forward and not goes backward.”
Besides Tucker, Schallberg praises his WTB nurse case manger, Robin Donald, for being a “miracle worker” for hooking him up with an Austin inpatient rehab hospital where physical therapists worked tirelessly with him to help him regain his mobility and strength.
“It just blows my mind, really, how many people have helped me,” he says.
Today, Schallberg’s every movement has a measured purpose, which requires intense concentration.
“I have to practice ‘heal to toe’ and keep my left foot straight,” he says joking that if he didn’t, he would be walking into walls since the tumor on the right side of his brain has robbed him of the ability to control movement and actions of his left arm and leg.
Though the tumor is stable for now, Schallberg refuses to let the unknown ruin his life, adding that he is constantly reminding his two sons, ages 8 and 12, that life is about living to the fullest.
“When they tell me ‘dad, you might die,’ I tell them that at least I’m smiling because it doesn’t matter. Everyone is going to die at some point,” he says, reminding them that no one has control of what might happen next. “You just live day by day, stay positive and don’t get bogged down by all the garbage in the world.”
And that attitude is exactly what inspires his platoon sergeant to pour over the Internet after hours to research what she can do to improve his life.
“It’s his smile,” she says. “He’s just so upbeat about his illness that it just makes me want to dig deeper. If I can enlighten one soldier to make them feel good about themselves, I feel good about myself as well. It makes me proud to be a soldier.”
For Schallberg, one thing is for certain: He’s going to keep on living like there’s no tomorrow.
“This is the only life you have,” he says, “so you can either be a jerk when you wake up every morning or you can be positive and make a difference in other people’s lives.”