This is the story of three heroes. Two soldiers who not only served years on the front lines, but bravely faced down debilitating diseases with unwavering courage. And their Sergeant, who cared for them even after they left his command, fighting to get them the care and treatment needed and offering up his family’s Flowing Springs cabin as a retreat.
For Army Master Sgt. David Luckett, who has served more than 22 years, taking care of his soldiers is his No. 1 duty.
When Sgt. Rachael Carey, 24, and Staff Sgt. Michael Stansbarger, 27, each fell ill, he made it his responsibility to look after them.
“Until I die, both families have a plate at my table,” Luckett said, because Carey and Stansbarger were true warriors who fought bravely on and off the field. When each returned from deployment and their bodies were inflicted with diseases they could not overcome, it wasn’t fair, Luckett said.
Luckett met Stansbarger in June 2006. A little more than a year later, Stansbarger would receive the news that a mole on his back was Stage IV melanoma.
However, Stansbarger’s military career was not always so bleak.
He was born at Williams Air Force Base with service in his blood. He entered the military in July 1999 to serve 10 years. He was deployed three times, once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
When he received the news he had cancer, the army sent him to a Fort Bliss hospital for treatment in December 2007. However, doctors found that the cancer had already spread to his brain.
During the next few months, Stansbarger underwent several brain surgeries.
He was transferred to the University Medical Center in Tucson for further treatment.
However, after two years of fighting, Stansbarger put up the white flag and told doctors he was done with chemo and radiation treatment.
“The doctors only gave him a short while to live without treatment,” Luckett said.
Realizing he would die, Stansbarger and his wife Nisa decided to make the most of the time they had left together.
When Luckett offered to bring Stansbarger and his family up to Payson for Fourth of July, they agreed, understanding this would be the last time they celebrated a holiday together.
Luckett made the best of the visit and took Stansbarger to Roosevelt Lake on his boat, held a barbecue at the cabin and took the family to Green Valley Park for fireworks.
However, on the evening of the fireworks show, Luckett and the Stansbarger family were separated from their group of friends and Luckett was left scrambling trying to find a place for Stansbarger to watch the show.
“I traveled in and around the Green Valley Park area looking for a good place for Michael and his family to observe the show. As you know it was packed and with only minutes prior to the fireworks, I found an area to park,” Luckett said. “I asked the owner of the house in which I was parked in front of if it would be OK. I told Jim Shannon that this would be the last show Stansbarger, a warrior would see.”
Shannon agreed and invited them into his yard, giving Stansbarger a front row seat with Nisa and 7-year-old son Zachary.
“The kindness and patriotism that Shannon showed was exemplary to strangers that just happened to show up in his yard,” Luckett said.
Although the fireworks show was wonderful, Stansbarger’s condition was grave and Luckett did not know if he would make it through the night. Stansbarger called his father in Tennessee to say he was not feeling well.
That night, Stansbarger stopped breathing twice but made it through to Sunday. The next day, Luckett laid Stansbarger in his truck and drove him to the Valley for hospice care. On Monday, July 6, Stansbarger died.
“I did as I knew how to do,” Luckett said. “I showed him a last hurrah in a tranquil, cool place.”
Stansbarger thanked Luckett before passing for taking care of him and his family.
“I think he had come to peace,” Luckett said. “The cancer had just consumed him.”
Five months earlier, Luckett brought Carey to the cabin to also get away from her illness.
Carey’s father Steve explained she joined the Army in 2004 at age 18 to do something different with her life.
“I raised my girls to whip any guy’s butt,” Steve said. “She would tackle anything.”
While deployed to Afghanistan, she was a gunner in the 282nd Military Police Company.
However, in 2007 Carey suffered from a hip injury and was pulled from combat to be a personal administrative assistant for Luckett.
Doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong with Carey, but suspected it had to do with her nerves. In August 2008, Carey was medically discharged. A month later, doctors found a tumor in her leg.
Realizing Carey would need extended care, Luckett made a few calls and got Carey kept on active duty so she could continue receiving uninterrupted care.
“I told her, ‘If there is something on the planet to help you, I’ll got get it for you,”’ he said.
In February, Luckett brought Carey and her daughter Madison, 4, to Flowing Springs for a barbecue similar to what he would do for Stansbarger. Like, Stansbarger, Carey’s condition continued to deteriorate with the tumor spreading to her pelvis and lungs.
On Sunday, May 24, her mother, Elizabeth’s birthday, Carey died.
Steve believes Carey left Elizabeth the best birthday present, her daughter Madison to look after.
“The military family has been great to us,” Steve said, “they are like family now.”
A few weeks ago, Luckett invited Carey’s family back to the cabin to deal with their daughter’s death.
Looking back at Carey’s and Stansbarger’s lives, Luckett said he was honored to know them.
“They are what you aspire to be,” he said.