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Veteran defies death to serve in a different way

As bad as it was and it was bad -- it could have been worse, a lot worse.

"I could be talking to the wizard," said Frederick Goldacker. "I could be on a couch somewhere."

Only one thing stood between the former Army sergeant and an emotional crisis -- and that was his focus on the men in his infantry unit coming home alive and well from the war in Afghanistan.

The sergeant came home, too -- Goldacker is now living in Niagara Falls -- but thanks to a freak combat incident, he arrived with thyroid cancer and a permanent disability.

"The doctor said, 'I have some bad news for you,' " Goldacker recalls. "And I jokingly said, 'I have cancer.'

"And he said, 'Yes, you do.' "

So what does Rick Goldacker, just 18 months away from combat and still in the midst of cancer treatment, do next?

He signs up to become a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.

For anyone who knows Goldacker, it's probably no surprise that the combat infantry leader is now patrolling the rivers and lakes around Buffalo. And doing it just a year after undergoing thyroid surgery and being declared disabled by the Army.

It's an uncommon tale of a soldier who saw a lot in Afghanistan, probably more than most men should, and could understandably have walked away from it.

Goldacker did just the opposite. He asked to serve his country again.

"He's a patriot," said Michael Russell, a supervisory marine interdiction agent with Customs and Border Protection in Wheatfield. "He loves his country and wants to do what he can to protect it."

Russell thinks Customs is lucky to have Goldacker, but Goldacker says no, he's the fortunate one.

He arrived here as part of an internship developed by the Warrior Transition project, an Army program designed to assist severely ill and wounded soldiers with their move to civilian life.

"I've been mentored by some of the most outstanding agents in the department," Goldacker said of his training. "I really hope in my heart that they find a place for me here."

Three years ago, civilian life seemed like a distant dream to Goldacker. Stationed in Wardak province southwest of Kabul, the Afghan capital, he headed a three-member infantry unit that saw more than its share of combat.

Wardak province is where insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter in August, killing 30 Americans, most of them members of the same elite Navy SEALs unit that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

Goldacker was no stranger to that kind of fighting. Even now, years later, he remembers the worst of the worst, like the night in May 2008 when rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, struck his base, sending him and his laptop flying.

"It blew me off my feet," he said of the blast. "All I saw was this one white burst and orange sparks."

Only later did he realize that he had barely escaped being wounded, maybe worse.

"It doesn't hit you until later," he said. "And then you're like, 'God, I could have died, I could have been killed.' "

A month later, while checking out a remote Afghan village, his unit again came under attack, this time by a group of insurgents who seemed to show up out of nowhere.

What started as fire from AK-47 assault rifles turned quickly to RPGs, including one that sent shrapnel into Goldacker's face while he was manning a machine gun turret. An armored face mask that he bought on his own -- and that the other soldiers made fun of -- probably saved his life.

"Literally, when they say you can see the whites of their eyes, that's how close they were," he said of the rebels who attacked that day.

He survived the assault, only to have his commander tell him, "Great job, sergeant, but you almost died."

In the end, it wasn't the Taliban that got to Goldacker; it was a cache of old artillery ammo that he came across while on patrol one day in Wardak.

What he knows for sure is that he was exposed to radiation, and the most likely source was depleted uranium from that abandoned ammo supply.

By the time he discovered the consequences, his one-year deployment was over, and he was back in the States working as a trainer at Fort Dix, N.J.

"One day, I noticed this big lump in my throat," he said.

Doctors told him that he had thyroid cancer and that his treatment would include surgery to remove his thyroid. He stayed in the Army and, with the help of the Warrior Transition program, started to think about life after the war.

Customs was among the first to call and, with it, offer him an opportunity to train with its air and marine operations. "I'm learning to become a mariner," he said of the training. "This work site internship is one of the best things provided to returning veterans."

His old infantry unit is headed back to Afghanistan next month, but this time without the doting sergeant who looked out for them.

"My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families," he said, "and I wish I could be there with them."

But he knows he can't, and that concerns him.

"They're like family," he said of his unit. "You all chew the same dirt. You're in the same hell. And you certainly would stand in front of any of them and take a bullet."

The alternative, he knows all too well, is one of those dreadful visits to the wizard and the couch.