Arlington, Va. – Many members of the military consider their service life changing, but for 1st Sergeant John Melson, it was life – literally.
After doctors discovered a mass in Melson’s neck during a military screening, he soon found himself on the operating table to remove a cancerous tumor that had killed him within five years. An elite team of surgeons from across the country temporarily removed the carotid artery to cut off the growth.
In 2004, after learning to speak again, Melson returned to the repair station and completed his enlistment in the Massachusetts National Army.
It’s no wonder that with devotion to service, Melson — now a Ranger, sapper, pathologist, airman, air assault, mountain fit with nine initiatives and five awards earned — in the US Army repeats “Be all you can be.” Being a “recruiting war.”
“I told everyone I was dead if I didn’t join the army,” he said. “So you have that kind of faith that saved your life.”
However, he acknowledged that his sense of duty extended beyond medical diagnosis after the 9/11 attacks.
“I thought if Boston, my hometown, they could come here and hurt any of my children, friends and family. I just felt it inside and pulled it out. Contribute to the war effort. I had to do that,” said Melson, now a senior technical adviser with the U.S. Army Futures Command’s Soldier Lethality Cross-Functional Team at Fort Benning, Georgia.
That led to his involvement in advising the Army’s new recruiting campaign, when the commander chose him as an in-house technical advisor to help soldiers and recruits understand and use the devices properly. A break in the set, an impromptu departure for the preparation session in the equipment, which caught the eye of the director and the operator.
They determined that their leadership and technical expertise was exactly what was needed to add to the reality and credibility of the war. But his leadership qualities are not a cinematic gimmick. They are the core of who is to be a soldier and not a lieutenant, said Maj. Brandon Davis, the soldier’s emergency team operations officer.
“He goes above and beyond what a senior NCO should be,” Davis said. He has many prizes of value, and has stripes from his hands to his chevrons.
Melson has four Army Commendation medals, one bronze star medal with 5 pins for valor, and two Purple Heart medals, among many other decorations.
“But it’s not just about that. He would bend over backwards to take care of the Soldiers,” Davis said. “It’s the epitome of tough love — how we want to lead our senior NCOs.”
Melson began his career in the US Marine Corps, serving from 1989-1992. After 12 years in the service, he said he felt an unwavering calling to return. After his battle with cancer, he enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2004 and was almost immediately able to deploy for the first time. Melson spent the next four years overseas with only short breaks between tours in Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq from 2004-2008. He also visited Afghanistan in 2011 and 2015 and Kuwait in 2018.
“The ingredients to that level of operational tempo — where we can be today, but in less than a month, we can be in the fight — that sense of purpose is a whole new level,” says Melson. “Our decisions involve where it could be life and death, and the lives of others are in your hands. That presses otherwise.’
Melson’s intensity and passion are evident in everything he does, from talking to his bosses to preparing soldiers for battle, said 1st Class Sergeant Hector Umana, who deployed with him under Special Operations Joint Task Force-A when he was a specialist with the 10th Mountain Division.
“He was taking time out of his day to train with us in the Quick Reaction Force, even though he wasn’t even part of the same unit,” said Umana, the QRF team leader. He would always say, “There are more than one way to skin a cat, but you must make a leader and go with him”.
That statement was to be paid on Aug. 7. 2015, when two vehicular IEDs detonated in the Umana area.
“Thank God that, when I think about that day, I still made the right decision. All my guys came home, and I just had to prepare for it,” said Umana, who nearly 10 years later joined Melson in her M-Day capacity as a member of the Georgia National Guard’s 54th Security Forces Support Brigade.
Captain Melson’s skills and traits led him to become an instructor and mentor. He served as a Ranger instructor at the Army National Guard Soldier Training Center and the Mississippi Army National Guard’s first Instructor Leader Course program – later becoming a full-time course instructor.
He now holds a dual role in active duty commands in the Future Command and as a traditional member of the Army Guard in the 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade, a unit with the mission of advising and assisting the military of US allies and allied nations.
“It’s at SFAB that using all those experiences that the plan has gained in Afghanistan makes people better,” Davis said. “He is the representative of the National Guard and is working on the top priority of exercise efforts. literally means force in every form.
Those prioritization efforts include the development of the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation, goggles that combine night and thermal vision with a command display to provide the fighter pilot with enhanced situational awareness. Melson will be seen recruiting soldiers in a commercial deployment.
Melson considers his participation as a point of pride and notes that he is grateful to the organization that has given him so much.
“Especially when the message is, ‘You can be anything,’ because I am. I am who I am today because of the opportunities the Army has provided me, and one of them is life. The Army gave me my life back by fixing that cancer,” he said.
It also allowed him to achieve what Davis called a legendary career, and after 18 years, he doesn’t see an end in sight.
“I never thought I’d be a Ranger or a sapper, and I’m constantly contributing to formations and helping to develop leaders,” Melson said. “He just helps feed me and keeps me going. There are many people who can help me.”