EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Florida — The human body is an intricate machine with the ability to send warning signs when something isn’t right on the inside.
Making sense of those warning signs isn’t always easy.
In 2002, then 22-year-old Staff Sgt. Sean Costello, an aircraft structural maintenance specialist at Yokota Air Base, Japan, found it impossible to put his pain into words.
“The doctor says, ‘Point where it hurts’ or ‘What’s the level of pain’ but I kept feeling like I couldn’t explain any of that,” Costello said March 9, 2018, at Eglin AFB.
Various tests and a surgery to treat his symptoms ensued, but Costello moved to his next assignment at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, still unsure of what was happening inside his body.
After four months at Kunsan, plagued with trips to the doctor, he was scheduled for an ultrasound off base.
He arrived at a gymnasium-like facility filled with an open bay of beds. Without any barrier for privacy, a doctor who spoke broken English motioned for him to strip down naked.
“In a strange way, that moment broke a wall down for me,” said now Master Sgt. Costello, 359th Training Squadron technical training flight chief and Detroit, Michigan, native. “Since then, there has been nothing to hide for me. The world should see me for exactly who I am no matter what.”
A month after the ultrasound, he was sent to U.S. Navy Hospital Okinawa, Japan, to discuss his results.
“I could see the images from the ultrasound and there was a black mass, like a black hole, and I knew what that meant.”
Costello was met by an oncologist who delivered the words he thought he’d never hear. The source of all his pain was a non-seminoma germ cell testicular tumor.
None of his loved ones knew about his recent health struggles. The doctor insisted he call home.
Costello proceeded to call his mother in Michigan at 3 a.m. her time. The words he spoke next would transform his life forever.
“I told her and before she could even respond, it dawned on me what was happening,” Costello said. “Speaking the words out loud is when reality hit me in the face.”
Knowing what he does now, Costello said he uses the same concept in the training environment with students who are struggling or failing.
He said he often encounters students who have invested so much into having an Air Force career and they don’t always comprehend a dire situation when it’s explained to them.
“So, I tell them to call home and have a verbal conversation with the person you’re closest to, because it’s how the brain processes.”
When the reality of his cancer diagnosis had set in, Costello’s oncologist told him there were two options moving forward.
He could wait to have surgery, return South Korea and collect his belongings, or he could have the tumor removed that day.
“I was 23, young enough to feel physically invincible and I said, ‘Bring it on.’”
The tumor was successfully removed, but his challenges were not over. The Airmen who would cross his path during his recovery would continue to alter the course of his life.
“You meet people who enter your life and you realize the pieces of the puzzle that come together with everyone you meet, the good pieces and the bad, and the image they make in the end.”
He returned to Kunsan after his surgery, but because his body was recovering, he was not cleared to perform his duties.
On his first night back at work, he recalls the NCOIC noticing his frustration. After all, he was a maintainer, and not being able to work felt maddening.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re running things now. I’ll be here for support but if you can’t do maintenance, you might as well run maintenance.’”
Costello says his NCOIC gave him a reason to keep going.
“Instead of letting me fall behind due to my health, he balanced what the Air Force needed with my needs at the time.”
After a total of four surgeries to ensure he was cancer-free, Costello faced a two-year recovery period that would put his mental resiliency to the test.
“When your mind is panicked, sometimes it needs to shut off and stop thinking about whatever is causing stress, so you end up doing something completely illogical.”
He recalled a night where he emptied out his dorm room and put everything he owned in a giant pile on the floor. He sat alone, reorganizing all his belongings for no apparent reason.
In the midst of his mess, his chief knocked on the door to check on him. When Costello opened the door revealing his mound of effects, the chief said it was time for a walk.
She took Costello for a cup of coffee and helped straighten out his thoughts.
“I walked back into my room after and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what was I doing with all my stuff on the ground?’”
Looking back on the difficult time in his life, he said his mental and physical health could’ve seriously suffered if so many Airmen hadn’t chosen to lend a hand at the right time.
“People ask what motivates me and honestly it’s whoever needs me that day. I want to make sure I’m there for them.”
Now he says there isn’t anything he won’t do or try because he doesn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to help someone. He said he believes by giving this effort every day, he’ll continue to come across those he can inspire.
When the time comes for soon-to-be Senior Master Sgt. Costello to hang up his uniform, he said he knows he’ll no longer be validated by making aircraft fly or earning rank. For him, fulfillment will come from the lives he’s touched.
“I always say I’ve never worked a day in my life. The military has saved me at least twice and I will never be able to repay it for that.”