SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Every cancer survivor has a story—one filled with fear, hope and resilience. While survivors have many things in common, no two journeys are the same.
At 18 years old, all Charles Boynton knew was that he wanted to fly. He was infatuated with the thrill and limitless feeling of the sky, so in 2012 he enlisted in the Air Force Reserves as an F-16 crew chief.
He started basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and upon he graduation, he came to Sheppard AFB and started his crew chief technical training in the 362nd Training Squadron. After spending a few months at Sheppard, he went to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, which ultimately led him to his hometown in Tampa, Florida.
While he was able to work on the jet fighter as a maintainer, it wasn’t the same as piloting a sleek weapons system of an F-16.
Juggling the demands of a full-time student and ROTC was a challenge, but he was adamant about serving and defending his country through mastering aircraft designed to protect and defend the nation or troops at risk.
“I left boot camp wanting to serve the Air Force and my country,” Boynton said. “I love the idea of being a part of it, the brotherhood and that idea of working with other people to achieve a common goal.”
He was one of two individuals selected out of his ROTC detachment to join the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, the world’s only internationally manned and managed pilot training program.
“I never thought I would be a fighter pilot, because everyone talks about how hard it is. You have to be top of the top of the pilot selects and I didn’t think I was top of the top by any means,” he said. “I checked the box anyway. It was almost a shot in the dark because I never thought I’d be picked up by ENJJPT.”
Focused on excelling in the 55-week, three-phased training program, things took a turn for the worst for the now-first lieutenant when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July 2018. What started as extreme discomfort from a tight harness and an infection in his finger, ended with two different masses in both of his testicles. Between 70% and 80% of each testicle had become a tumor, leaving doctors no choice but to remove them.
“Hormones are important to your body and you don’t realize it until you don’t have any,” he said. “I was struggling a lot closer to when I knew I had cancer and I lost a lot of fight. I didn’t want to try as hard and it was really tough.”
Boynton endured a bilateral radical inguinal orchiectomy. After putting his cancer behind him, it turned out that he had abnormalities in his stomach, forcing him to undergo another major surgery.
“It was a pretty unique experience dealing with that,” he said. “Even though I was going through a lot, when you walk through the halls of a cancer center and see children suffering, it’s humbling. Ever since I got diagnosed, all the doctors would tell me it’s a 98% survival rate, so even though I was in pain, I always knew it could be worse.”
After about four months of recovery, Boynton was ready to bounce back to normalcy.
“When you set a goal and you start seeing it come into fruition, it becomes a whole different story when something like cancer rips it from your hands,” he said. “When you see your career path kind of dwindle away, it becomes frustrating and it changes your perspective.”
His desired career path continued to slowly dwindle away as he waited for a Medical Evaluation Board waiver. What was supposed to take a few months to attain ended up taking two years. During that period, he faced uncertainty from the Air Force even when doctors said he was perfectly healthy.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life,” he said. “After going through the cancer, being told I wasn’t going to be able to get back into the cockpit right away and then being told I was getting kicked out, it was hard to focus on flying when it’s been taken away from me so many times.”
In the midst of waiting for a waiver, Boynton took that time to experience a world outside of pilot training through interacting with both the 80th Flying Training Wing, home to ENJJPT, and the 82nd Training Wing, where he underwent F-16 crew chief training many years before.
“It was an awesome experience. I got to go TDY, I got to meet new people and engage in new experiences,” he said. “I got put up for these officer development activities and I went to Air Space Management School. Now I have a new perspective. I would love to be a commander one day to experience leading people in that aspect.”
Two and a half years later, Boynton was finally able to restart pilot training.
He said it has been “weird” over the past roughly two years of waiting to see if he would continue his dream of being a combat pilot. He even asked if it was something he wanted to continue pursuing.
“Part of me was like I want to lead people and experience that side of things, and at that moment, I didn’t feel like I was putting myself to the test,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was fully maximizing what I could give to the Air Force.”
Though Boynton has restarted pilot training in the midst of COVID-19, he said the struggle is what he lives for. He said he believes every setback has intensified his mental resiliency.
“It’s been difficult because part of me knows that I’ve learned this already, or been through this before. It becomes super daunting to try and learn it again. Being out of a training environment for two and a half years has impacted me. I have to relearn how to learn,” he said. “I’ve been very frustrated for the past two and half years, but I didn’t give up, the struggle is what I live for.”
Although his journey through perhaps the most challenging two years of his life are behind him, he looks forward to the challenges and rigors of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot.