By Nikki Ross Inda
Melissa Vazquez dreamed of being able to explore the world, while serving her country and earning a college degree. In 1986, she joined the United States Navy. While she was stationed in Sasebo, Japan in 1991, Melissa met her future husband, Carlos, a fellow Navy officer. A year later, Carlos proposed and they exchanged vows during an intimate ceremony in Puerto Rico. Soon after the wedding, the Vazquez’s started a family, while continuing to excel in their naval careers.
Balancing the demands of family and military life was very challenging. Melissa was deployed four times, serving in Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Both Melissa and Carlos served for 20 years before retiring.
As a veteran, Melissa found herself in a new battle. In 2014, when her youngest son Jayden was only eight-years-old, Melissa was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She courageously underwent a double mastectomy, radiation treatments and chemotherapy at Moffitt Cancer Center. The fight continued in 2016 when cancer returned, this time in the form of thyroid cancer; and if that wasn’t enough, a year later a third diagnosis, bladder cancer. With each new diagnosis, Melissa struggled to find the right words to explain to her three children the cancer had returned.
Today, Melissa remains on maintenance treatment. She stays active by giving back to her community. She is the president of the Sisters Network of Tampa Bay, an organization that helps raise awareness about breast cancer prevention and early detection among African American communities. She often speaks at area churches about the importance of follow up medical visits.
On May 11, the Tampa Bay Rays honored Melissa through the Salute to Survivors program. During the fifth inning salute, Melissa’s eyes filled with tears as baseball fans cheered her on, thanking her for her service. Though she’s held many roles throughout her life including empowered woman, United States Navy veteran and hero, her most precious title is simply that of mom. As she continues to serve, thrive and survive, Melissa’s greatest wish is to see her children grow up.