Senior Airman Jennifer Scobie: A Story of Resilience and Triumph

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. David Carbajal
  • AFN Misawa

Currently, the average American lives to about 79 years old. For one Airman at Misawa Air Base, she was about 78 years short of that.

“I’ve been fortunate to have lived two lives,” said Senior Airman Jennifer Scobie, a 35th Maintenance Squadron Aerospace Ground Equipment journeyman.

In her job as AGE, she directly supports the tireless maintenance of Misawa’s F-16 Fighting Falcons. She also directly supports her teammates as a happy, outgoing, and positive member of Team Misawa.

In 2002, when Scobie was about 10 months old, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, which is a rare form of leukemia. It is even more rare to be diagnosed with it as a child. According to the National Cancer Institute, AML is diagnosed when the bone marrow makes a large number of abnormal blood cells. Scobie underwent extensive chemotherapy to correct the issue.

“I had to stand by and watch as my daughter be given a toxic wasteland worth of chemicals,” said Rich Scobie, father of Jennifer and a retired corrections officer in Las Vegas. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a father.”

While undergoing chemotherapy, Jennifer’s heart stopped, and her hospital care team resuscitated her. Shortly after, her heart stopped again, and the care team was once again successful in bringing her back. Then, she had trouble breathing on her own, so Jennifer’s parents agreed to put her on a ventilator to assist her lungs.

After four or five days on the ventilator, her lungs didn’t improve.
“The doctor told me to call the church and ask for the priest to give her (Jennifer) last rites,” said Rich.

The Scobie family started to lose hope for a positive outcome, but a glimmer of hope was right around the corner. The care team performed an X-ray on Jennifer’s lungs and started to see improvements.

“Then, they did another X-ray, and it showed even more improvement,” said Rich with a smile. “I kid you not: later that night, Jenn was in my lap playing. I can’t even describe the feeling and joy that I felt.”

But the Scobies were not out of the woods yet. To fully recover, Jennifer would need a bone marrow transplant from a willing donor.

“We tested everybody. Me, my wife, my family, my wife’s family, nobody was a match,” said Rich. “Except … her brother.”

Her brother, Jeffrey, was 7 years old at the time and was a perfect bone marrow match for Jennifer.

According to Rich, Jeff was eager to help his young sister. “He knew how sick she was and wanted to help,” said Rich.

Around the same time, the Scobies decided to move Jennifer’s care to another treatment facility. They ultimately settled on Children’s Hospital in Orange County.

Since the diagnosis, Rich had been using sick and vacation days on a consistent basis in order to remain bedside for Jennifer, but those days were coming to an end.

“The PD put a post out about requesting donations of time,” said Rich. “Within 45 minutes, I had a full year’s worth of time off.”

Rich credits karma for the overwhelming support he received.

“If you do the right thing and treat people well, good things happen,” he added.

With the financial stability to resume the treatment, the Scobies prepared for the bone marrow transplant. On Oct. 24, 2003, Jeff endured a painful hour of bone marrow harvesting, which resulted in 16 ounces of bone marrow for his sister. About 30 minutes later, the process began to induct Jennifer with the bone marrow.

“It was a long four or five days after the induction, but shortly after, she was herself again,” said Rich.

Following the procedure, Jennifer returned to the hospital every few days for tests and screenings to ensure no unexpected complications arose, but only good news followed. However, that didn’t necessarily put the Scobies’ minds at ease.

“We were terrified every time she got a sniffle,” Rich said. “We thought ‘oh God, what’s going to happen now.’”

But the good news continued. Scobie officially entered remission around age 7, when her determination to join the Air Force manifested; with her medical history, Jennifer knew it would be an uphill battle, but that wouldn’t stop her from pursuing it.

“I decided to join when I was 8 years old,” said Jennifer. “My stepfather took me to the aviation museum at Wright Patterson (Air Force Base, Ohio), and I fell in love.”

After that, Jennifer begged her mom to buy her a flight suit to wear, which she proudly wore for years.

She was as normal as possible throughout school, participating in basketball, cheerleading, and lacrosse. She jumped at the opportunity to join her school’s junior ROTC program.

“She did honor guard, drill, you name it. And she was good at it!” said Rich.

All of these skills would come in handy. In her junior year of high school, Jennifer finally made her first attempt to join.

“I went to my recruiter, handed in a very detailed binder with all of my previous medical procedures, and told him I was in remission, but I wanted to join,” Jennifer said.

The recruiter opened the binder in amazement, she said. The recruiter then gave Jennifer some homework.

“He said I needed to take the binder and tab it for ease of reference,” said Jennifer.

With her homework and the initial paperwork complete, Jennifer traveled to the closest military entrance processing station to meet with the doctors and finalize the process.

“Unfortunately, I was denied,” said Jennifer. “My recruiter told me I needed a waiver in order to join.”

She was still determined to give it her best effort. In this case, her waiver had to go up to the Air Force Surgeon General for approval to ensure she was fit for duty. She optimistically submitted the waiver and waited for the final decision.

“I got a call from my recruiter, and with the tone of his voice, I was confident he was going to say I was denied again,” said Jennifer. “But then he said, ‘You got the approval!’ I was shocked!”

On Feb. 22, 2022, Jennifer’s career finally began as she flew to the “Gateway to the Air Force” at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

“I go through basic, kept my head down, just as I was told,” said Jennifer. “In the final weeks of training, I found out that I would be AGE.”

This made Jennifer happy, as she signed an open mechanical contract with the hope of working in aircraft maintenance. It was also fitting that she fell into this career field because her father, when he was in the Air Force nearly 40 years earlier, was an aircraft structural maintenance technician and went on to work for aviation giant Pan Am.

After graduating from technical training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jennifer learned she was going to Misawa Air Base, Japan, for her first assignment.

“I was excited,” said Jennifer. “I knew it was going to be a great opportunity for me.”

Jennifer arrived at Misawa in September 2022, and since she arrived at her unit, she’s been a mentor and beacon of optimism for her peers and even the leaders above her. This quality was put on display when she earned a meritorious promotion to E-4, known as senior airman below the zone.

“I feel extremely fortunate that I got a second chance at life,” said Jennifer.

She’s not only grateful for the second chance; she has a permanent reminder of this on her body.

“When I was about 14 years old, my dad paid for me get a tattoo on my chest to cover the scar,” said Jennifer. “The tattoo is the blue and gold ribbon for childhood cancer, and in the ribbon, it has 10-24-03–the date of my bone marrow transplant–which is the day I consider to be when I started my second life.”

Jennifer is in rare company. She is one of only a few who have ever joined the United States military after having survived cancer.

“I’ve been in recruiting for 12 years now, and this would be the first instance I’ve seen,” said Master Sgt. Zachary Nuvy, 369th Recruiting Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

From the brink of despair to the pinnacle of hope, her story was one of resilience and determination. And as she looked ahead to the future, she was filled with gratitude for the second chance at life that had brought her to this moment.

“I don’t necessarily want to be known as the ‘cancer girl,’” she said. “But if it brings hope to one person, it would all be worth it.”