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Service & Sacrifice: An able veteran

"He just always says, what’s next?" said Betsy Liebenow, the wife of a veteran, cancer survivor, and amputee who bikes, kayaks, and rock climbs.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Facing a list of reasons to stay in bed, U.S. Air Force veteran Brian Liebenow wakes up most mornings looking at a day full of possibilities.

“I hope people can know there is a lot of opportunity out there if you just go looking for it,” said Liebenow who has survived cancer, amputation, and must eat through a feeding tube. In a 2020 post on Medium he explained the list of almost two dozen health challenges tied to his service including a deployment overseas in 2001.

“I have experienced: infertility, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, tinnitus, hearing loss, partial paralysis on one side of my body & loss of feeling on the other, osteoradionecrosis in my jaw, bacterial meningitis, hydrocephalus, multiple staph infections and bouts of pneumonia, as well as skin cancer, bone infections, and a subdural hematoma. I now live with an amputated arm, clavicle, and three ribs, gastroparesis, and I eat through a feeding tube. I can see your eyes start to glaze over — you’ve hardly started! Let me just say, I’ve been to the doctor a time or two. Maybe because I spent around 70 days at an old Soviet airbase in Uzbekistan where they used to dump chemical weapons.”- Brian Liebenow, Medium August 11, 2020.

The retired U.S. Air Force major said all his surgeries and medical bills have been paid for through the Veterans Administration. However, Liebenow is one of almost 15,000 troops who served on that base in Uzbekistan and many of his fellow troops face similar health struggles but must pay out of pocket for treatment. Their diagnosis has yet to be connected to their military service. The nonprofit Stronghold Freedom Foundation is lobbying lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to expand the scope of care for veterans who served on a base known as K2.

“He just doesn't stop. He keeps going,” said Betsy Liebenow, who has been with her husband throughout all of his sicknesses and surgeries, recalling one that lasted 22 hours, “He gets up every morning. He does normal things every day. He just keeps going.”

The couple adopted their daughter in 2008 and spend their days focused on their next active adventure: biking, kayaking, golfing, and rock climbing. That, too, is a long list.

Credit: Brian Liebenow

Reflecting on his eight-and-a-half years in the military, Brian said he harbors no grudges or blame. His memories are focused yet again on all the opportunities he enjoyed.

“The friends that I had there and the many different places I got to see.”

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