RALEIGH, N.C. – Two weeks ago in Franklinton, North Carolina, National Guard Chaplain Maj. Melissa Culbreth sat laughing and joking in a chair on the front porch of the farm where she works, while her signature red hair was done in five braids.
The porch was full of friends, family and fellow Soldiers watching and waiting for the braids to be cut off and collected.
Sgt. 1st Class John Setera, who had deployed to Iraq with Culbreth in 2009, draped a black, plastic hairdresser’s cape around her and grabbed the clippers.
As the clippers buzzed, chunks of Culbreth’s hair fell down the front of the cape and onto the floor at her feet.
“I wanted to take my hair on my own terms,” Culbreth said. “Instead of letting the chemo take it.”
This was the second party she has held to shave her head shortly after starting chemotherapy for breast cancer; the first was in March of 2010, when she was less then two months home from a deployment to Iraq with the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team.
“I’m not sure which is going to be harder,” Culbreth said, “not knowing what is going to happen over the next 18 weeks, or knowing what is going to happen over the next 18 weeks.”
Culbreth, who now serves as the brigade chaplain for NCNG’s 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, began her most recent round of chemotherapy the week before her party. This is her third diagnosis and third round of chemotherapy.
“I know what chemo is like because I’ve done it. To know I’m going to be doing that again, and going through all the side effects. Again. Right now that’s probably the hardest part. At the head-shaving party Culbreth had in 2010, about 17 people shaved their heads to show their support. At this party, four people shaved their heads and many had a strip of their hair dyed pink. Culbreth said she has lost track of the total number of people who were not able to make it to the party who have done the same.
“It’s been cool,” she said. “It’s been people from a girl I went to middle school with and high school with, to Soldiers I deployed with to Iraq, to present-day forks that I served with in Charis Foundation and worked with as therapists.”
About 30 people gathered at the farm to celebrate Culbreth and support her in her fight, including Sgt. Carrie MacCollum, with the 1132nd Military Police Company, another of the Soldiers who deployed with Culbreth in 2009.
“She’s being the boss of the situation,” MacCollum said. “She’s not letting cancer beat her, she’s beating cancer. She took it upon herself to shave her head and she’s taking her hair, not cancer. So she’s beating this and we’re all here to support her with that. We’re beating it with her.”
Culbreth spent the evening surrounded by her family of friends and Soldiers who she draws on for support.
“The military is my family,” Culbreth said. “That’s who I have depended on since I got in in 2006. They are my brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t know what to do. Some of the first people I told were buddies that I deployed with. My unit, my brothers and sisters in the guard, my participation in the 30th Infantry Division Association, those are the people I depend on. The whole Guard is family thing seems like a pithy saying, but I’m living proof that it’s more than that, that it's true and it's honest or there wouldn’t be so many people here tonight.”
Culbreth has spent eight years in the North Carolina National Guard as a chaplain, being part of the support system for other Soldiers. She said that sometimes being a chaplain it feels as if she is invisible, but at the party she realized how many people care.
“Sometimes you feel invisible,” she said. “You’re the fire extinguisher; break in case of emergency. When (life gets hard), everybody wants you there, but sometimes you wonder if people notice in the meantime, and the answer to that is yes, because tonight shows people care. And that’s really important to me.”