SARATOGA COUNTY – The “beasts” began to take hold of Ken Woolley during the Gulf War.
Part of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Woolley was on a forward unit tasked with readying the way for subsequent troops.
“I helped out clearing the path, I guess you could say,” Woolley, 55, said Friday, his apartment’s porch roof shading him from the sweltering afternoon sun. “I would go in and make sure there was nothing left.”
The intensity of that kind of mission – exacerbated by the deaths of two friends in his unit as a result of a landmine explosion – left a significant mark.
“Your adrenaline is so high. It’s the highest high in the world, but when you get a minute to stop and think about something, you think, that was somebody’s dad, brother, cousin, uncle–whatever–who just lost his life for his country.”
When Woolley’s time in the Persian Gulf ended and he was back home in Saratoga Springs, his life spiraled. The smell of a cigarette accidentally burning hair took him right back to the Gulf. His marriage couldn’t survive his posttraumatic stress disorder, which he’s still working through with the help of a therapist three decades later.
PTSD was the first beast. He’s fighting a second beast, as well–one that likely traces back to the toxic burn pits he was around while serving his country. That beast could end his life in the coming days or weeks. Then again, he’s already been cheating death for four years.
Still, when the inevitable arrives, Woolley will have a proper funeral and burial at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery thanks to friends and community members in Saratoga County and Ballston Spa, where Woolley has served as a volunteer firefighter for more than a decade. Hosted by Ribbon Cafe, the community is putting on a June 5 fundraiser in the village to help pay for the costs of Woolley’s final arrangements.
Following Woolley’s divorce, his life was unsteady. He found work as a machine operator at General Foods, and found love again. He got married and had children, including Julia Woolley, 25.
But the PTSD didn’t loosen its grip. Woolley started drinking. He got divorced for a second time.
After that he cleaned himself up enough to be an involved father and found other jobs like driving a truck for Stewart’s and becoming a market product service manager at Lowe’s.
But much of his purpose has come from volunteer firefighting. In addition to serving in Union Fire Company No. 2 in Ballston Spa, he’s also served in the Greenfield Center Fire Company No. 1 and the Porters Corners Fire Company No. 2. All in all, he’s spent nearly two decades serving as a firefighter.
In part, he likes that rushing into burning buildings floods him with adrenaline in the same way war did. But this time, it’s always to help.
“It became a true passion. In the firehouse, there is always a place for somebody. So when I got there I just wanted to be the best I could be,” Woolley said. “It’s not about being a hero. It’s about helping people. Somebody’s worst day of their life is happening that day, and here you are trying to make it better.”
One of the worst days of Woolley’s life came four years ago – and it was just months after one of the happiest days of his life.
The happy day was the birth of his granddaughter Dakota. Unlike with his daughter, Julia, who was born with complications, with Dakota, Woolley was able to cut the umbilical cord.
The moment, “just brings so much joy to my heart,” Woolley said.
But then came the bad news. He’d gone to an ear, nose and throat specialist to look into persistent sinus infections. That’s how Woolley found out he had terminal throat cancer. When he got the news, he had literally just come back from a fire and hung up his coat and his hat to answer the doctor’s call. He would battle a few blazes after that, but now his firefighting days are done. He’s simply too much of a liability.
Almost immediately after getting the news, he began chemo and radiation. He was told he had six months to live – a year at the longest.
“I got angry,” said Julia Woolley of when she first learned of her father’s diagnosis. “Because I wanted to know why it happens to the good people.”
Part of the frustration for Ken Woolley is the fact that his cancer is likely linked to burn pits he was so often near during the war.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced nine rare respiratory cancers are now presumed service-connected disabilities due to military environmental exposures to fine particulate matter. These cancers include squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx; squamous cell carcinoma of the trachea; adenocarcinoma of the trachea; salivary gland-type tumors of the trachea; adenosquamous carcinoma of the lung; large cell carcinoma of the lung; salivary gland-type tumors of the lung; sarcomatoid carcinoma of the lung; and typical and atypical carcinoid of the lung.
As a result, the VA says it will process disability compensation claims for these conditions for veterans who served any amount of time in the Southwest Asia theater of operations beginning Aug. 2, 1990, to the present, or Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Syria or Djibouti beginning Sept. 19, 2001, to the present.
This month marks the 4-year anniversary of Woolley being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx.
“I’ve never seen someone with your throat cancer last this long,” Woolley said a doctor recently told him.
Still, it’s been a constant battle.
“Cancer is such a beast. It’s relentless,” Woolley said. “As you get treated one way for it, it changes the way it is inside and it will change the way it grows.”
As a result, Woolley knows his days are limited.
“I am at the month-to-month fight, the day-to-day fight,” he said. “It’s on my throat and inside around my carotid artery. Another spot just lit up on the side of my neck.”
That’s why Woolley is planning his funeral. He mentioned something about this to Jennifer Baldwin, who first met Woolley in her role as a social worker at Saratoga Hospital’s Mollie Wilmot Radiation Oncology Center. They’ve since become friends.
“I know he was a hard-ass in the service and in the fire department, but now I just see him as a big teddy bear,” Baldwin said. Though she points out when she first met Woolley he was a more robust physical presence. Woolley said he’s dropped from 280 pounds down to about 150 over his four years of treatment. He’s also lost teeth.
Baldwin said Woolley was stressing about strapping his family with the cost of a funeral.
“He doesn’t want to burden his family with his final expenses,” Baldwin said. So when Woolley rejected the idea of an online fundraising campaign, “I said, ‘why don’t we talk about a fundraiser for you?’”
That fundraiser will be hosted by Ribbon Cafe in Ballston Spa. It’ll be something of a block party on June 5, from 2 to 5 p.m., with more than two dozen vendors, live music, fire trucks and even rescue donkeys people can kiss. And there will be hot dogs – plenty of hot dogs – since Woolley loves hot dogs. Proceeds donated by vendors, community members, and from a 50/50 raffle will go to help pay the costs of Woolley’s funeral.
Ribbon is no stranger to charitable events. In fact, the cafe was founded by renowned chef and chowder champion Kevin Myers after his wife, Jennifer, died of breast cancer in 2017 at the age of 45.
The name “Ribbon” celebrates cancer awareness.
Christine Pyle, Kevin Myers’ sister who assists with the operations at Ribbon, said it means so much to be able to help others in need.
“It means that maybe we can make a difference in somebody’s life. Maybe to make their transition or help them in whatever the next chapter in their life is,” she said.
Woolley said he’s focused on his story’s present rather than its ending. That means spending a lot of time with his precocious 4-year-old granddaughter, Dakota.
Given the circumstances, reality can never be completely set aside. After all, Dakota knows about chemo and she knows to push an emergency button if Woolley collapses while he and Dakota are alone.
But Woolley says he’s doing what he can to stay in the moment. He’s forever grateful that he got to see his granddaughter’s first day of preschool. And when Dakota throws a fit the way 4-year-olds do, Woolley said he tries not to let a temper take hold.
He calls Dakota his angel and his strength, and he believes he’s been able to outlive his prognosis to have more time with her.
“My emotions are so all over the place. I’ll be super sad and look down at my little granddaughter with those eyes, and she’ll be like ‘Papa, can we go to the playground?’” Woolley said. “And I’m like, ‘yeah, yeah, we can.’”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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