313 TRS Airman defies odds, cancer

Staff Sgt. Donald Ells

Staff Sgt. Donald Ells

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- In November 2005, then-Senior Airman Donald Ells reported to the 313th Training Squadron at Corry Station for an intermediate-level signals analysis course. He knew it was a challenging course, but he hoped he would have some free time to visit the area's famous white-sand beaches and maybe even squeeze in some fishing before he left. Fate had other plans.

Not long after arrival, he began feeling ill and reported to Pensacola Naval Hospital. The staff initially thought he had a viral illness, but ran some tests to rule out anything more serious. When those tests came back with suspicious results, he was called back for further tests and was ultimately diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.

Fortunately, it was treatable, but the treatment included debilitating chemo and radiation therapies. By this time he had completed the signals analysis course with an overall average of 96.2 percent -- best in his class. It was decided that nearby Eglin Air Force Base would handle his cancer treatment and he was assigned to the Patient Squadron at the 96th Medical Support Squadron there.

The 96 MDSS makes every effort to keep the members of its Patient Squadron gainfully employed; however there is not much use for a Signals Analyst in a Medical Group. Therefore, Airman Ells contacted the 313 TRS and asked if they had any work he could do. Knowing Ells' capabilities, his instructors recommended him to the 313 TRS commander, Maj. Hal Brown, who worked out a deal with the 96 MDSS to have Airman Ells "loaned" to the 313 TRS.

For the next 8 months, while enduring cancer treatments that left him ill for days at a time, Airman Ells was, in Major Brown's words, "...a phenomenal asset to this squadron." He attended the Navy's Basic Instructor Course and began assisting the undermanned course as an instructor assistant. Airman Ells qualified quickly as an instructor and developed an innovative instructor training program that standardized training among all four services and was implemented by the Navy schoolhouse leadership. He created and adapted more than thirty test questions for the advanced signals analysis course, which allowed for computerized, paperless testing. He also documented for nine academic review boards, proctored six retests and he re-wrote the disciplinary agreement policy for temporary duty students, consolidating Air Education and Training Command and Navy standards.

When a key member of the commander's support staff was unexpectedly put on extended medical leave, Airman Ells was asked to fill in. He quickly learned a few procedures and in-processed more than 40 students, briefed them on safety procedures and policies and entered them into the squadron's database. He was assigned five programs for the unit's self-inspection program, all of which passed a subsequent SAV. He updated seventy unit appointment letters and 10 continuity books, worked rental car authorizations and identified and corrected flaws in eleven travel accrual vouchers.

It would be easy to excuse someone undergoing cancer treatments for becoming despondent or depressed, but Airman Ells would have none of that. Throughout his entire ordeal, he remained upbeat and made time to help others. He volunteered for 10 major events in the 313 TRS and the local community, often taking on the role of the lead organizer. He organized a squadron picnic, chaired the Holiday Party Committee, and spearheaded a fundraiser that raised more than $2,400 for the squadron. He briefed thirty Junior ROTC cadets on educational opportunities in the Air Force, taught crisis support classes for the Red Cross and led fundraisers for the American Cancer Society. As if all that was not enough, he attended seven college classes and passed 2 CLEP exams, earning twenty-one credit hours towards his bachelor's degree.

As unpleasant as the cancer treatments were, they proved effective and his cancer went into remission. He was selected for promotion to staff sergeant and graduated from Airman Leadership School in January. He was cleared by a Medical Evaluation Board earlier this year and has been reassigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., where he works as a Space Systems Analyst.

Sergeant Ells is an inspiration to all of us at the 313th Training Squadron. Anyone who thinks it is too hard to excel at work and still find time to volunteer and go to college, think of Sergeant Ells. He excelled at jobs whether he was trained for them or not; who ensured he gave something back to the community; who made the time to attend college - all while undergoing treatment for a life threatening illness. He even managed to squeeze in some fishing.