Later this spring, Troy will be involved in the production of an educational film designed to increase HIV awareness and prevention efforts at all branches and levels of the U.S. military. His open participation in this film will serve as his "HIV coming-out" to the broader military population -- no easy task for a senior member of the Navy, but one he feels will benefit military personnel across the board, both those living with HIV and those who deny their risk for infection.
Who have been your mentors?
My wife and daughters, who continue to love and support me. They are my life and I'm blessed that they will be there for my future. Many of my other mentors are people associated with the Plus Clinic at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Jerry Tarr was my first point of contact after I was diagnosed, and he helped me understand HIV. He told me I have a better chance of being killed by a bus than by HIV, and helped me realize that my life hadn't stopped -- it just needed a little readjustment. Sheila Hopper,my peer and my friend, is a nurse at the Jackson Foundation, and has been there to calm me down when I was stuck playing the "Numbers" game with my CD4 and viral load counts. I'll tell you more about that later. Dr. Tamiga, Susan Kitchen, and all the other people at the Plus Clinic -- they have given me excellent care. I know they're tired of hearing me call and complain about every medical issue I have, but still they continue to listen and make me feel good about myself.
What made you decide to speak out publicly about your HIV status?
I didn't decide to go public, not until now. I have always kept my status to myself and those I chose to share it with; my wife nominated me, so I figure it is okay with me being open about it now.
What do you think is unique about your story?
I don't think my story is any more interesting than anyone else who's living with HIV from day to day. The only unique thing about my story is that I am in the Navy, and am therefore living in a world strictly governed by military law. Navy policy is that people who are HIV positive or who are otherwise diagnosed with a "grave illness" can't go out to sea, which affects our ability to advance in rank. In my case, this policy has held me up from advancing to Master Chief, which would have been nice to do before I retired. I really wish I could do something to change the restrictions placed upon us, but a lot of changes would have to occur in order for that to happen. New policies have been drafted, but they haven't been reviewed yet.
What do you think is unique about the audiences you try to reach when you speak out?
Right now I only speak with military and local folks who are newly diagnosed -- they're given my phone number as a contact and we speak in a completely confidential conversation. It's vital to be there for the newly diagnosed -- the first 48 hours are crucial, because I believe that's when the "newbie" establishes the mental image of what life with HIV is going to be like.
This May, I'll be involved in the production of a training film that will be used to educate other military personnel about HIV. There are many HIV-positive military people participating -- everyone has the opportunity to have their face screened and their voice disguised if they prefer, but I'll be participating openly and in uniform. This is the first time I'll be placing my identity as a person with HIV out in the open in the non-infected community. This I'll do as a senior member of the military, right before I retire. I've chosen this as the time for me to go out and educate the general population because I feel I've come to terms with my own life and HIV infection.
What's the best thing about sharing your story with others?
My hope is always just to educate folks about HIV and how not to contract it, and, most importantly, to help those with HIV to adjust their lives and go on with it. I truly believe it's just like any other illness, like diabetes or arthritis. You can live with it -- it may cause a few bumps in the road along the way, but it's nothing to get upset about.
What's the worst thing?
The low general level of education and understanding amongst those who don't have HIV, this includes family and friends.
Right now, with going public, there's also the emotional roller coaster involved with that, revealing my status to another cycle of friends and family. I believe I'm ready for this next stage, and I hope to God I really am ready to face the emotions that will come with it.
What do your relatives feel about you speaking out?
I only have one thing to say here: It's okay with my family. I love them and they have decided to stay with me, so that's all that matters. I did have to impress upon my daughters recently that they are not to disclose my status to other people without my permission -- that's my private business, and therefore not theirs to tell.
What does your wife feel about you speaking out?
Well, my wife nominated me for the award! She and I have spent a long time coming to our own understanding, and I love her for sticking with me for the past 23 years. Overall, though, my family has shared the news with selected friends, but they don't speak out publicly about it themselves.
What have you learned since you began speaking openly about your HIV status -- about yourself? About other people either with or without HIV?
In the short time that I've been speaking out, I've learned that dealing with HIV is a daily process. I have to live with it every day, and though it does affect others around me, I am the one who has to deal with it in all its manifestations. When I was first diagnosed, I spent a lot of time making other people around me feel better about me having HIV. Now I concentrate more on my health and on those who have proven to be true in heart to me. I do feel that in the future, I will become even more involved -- I want to educate everyone, young and elderly, to understand HIV and not to avoid or shun those who are HIV positive.
Can you describe your feelings when you were first diagnosed? Did you feel differently a few months down the road? How long do you think it takes to really process the diagnosis?
I had a very bad experience with my diagnosis. This was in 2000 when I was away on Temporary Assigned Duty. I was pulled from my class and given my diagnosis in a room with about five or six other people present, all senior in rank to me. For some reason, it was deemed okay for my results to be shared with all these other people present instead of one-on-one. Later, I was informed that the director of the school shared my diagnosis with some other staff. To this day it haunts me that I don't know who is aware of my diagnosis and who is not.
A few months later, the crew over at the Naval Hospital managed to convince me that I was okay and that this would not kill me. I was talking earlier about playing the "numbers" game in my head -- what I mean by that is that I used to be obsessed with my CD4 and viral load counts. I went on medication right away and responded well to it, but I would go berserk if my viral load count went above 50. Anything that went wrong, even a scratch or something, I'd call in a panic thinking it was an HIV-related problem. They all got to the point where they hated the days when I got my labs checked, because I'd freak out if my numbers went up even a little bit above normal! But then I started educating myself, reading articles from TheBody.com and other resources, and that helped me not be so jumpy anymore. But it was still a hard road to travel, depending on who I spoke to and when I spoke to them about the fact that I was HIV positive.
Any tips for those who are newly diagnosed?
The most important thing of all is to learn about what you're living with now and how you can get most comfortable with it. If you can't do that, you will remain at the starting gate. And the world doesn't stand still -- not even for people like us.
What do you think is the first thing someone who has just found out they have HIV should do? What's the second thing?
First, educate yourself so you understand HIV. Learn what this new change is in your life and the responsibilities that go with it. Become as comfortable with it as you can, so you can teach others how to understand it. There are a lot of uneducated folks out there. Second, ensure contact with those who you love and have always loved. Share your diagnosis with others, as you're comfortable, and make those people see that this is a cruelly misunderstood disorder. A lot of folks would be happier if you had cancer than HIV, so you decide for yourself who you'll tell and how, when, and where you will inform the people you care about and other people who need to know.
If HIV were a person, animal, or object, what would it be? Why?
At first I thought of it as a wall, a solid brick wall that you couldn't see through and you didn't know what was on the other side of it or how others were going to interact with you. These are all scary and doubtful thoughts. But now I see it as a picket fence. You can see through it, but instead of seeing the fence and owning up to the responsibilities of the fence (HIV), a person can start looking through the slats and get lost in the beautiful sky and landscape on the other side, forgetting that between them and that beautiful landscape there is now a fence. No matter how it got built, it is now part of our lives, and we have to deal with it and never forget it's there. It's so tempting to just try to jump over that fence and go on with what feels good, but it's not our place to do that. It's not anyone's place to do that, positive or not.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing HIV-positive people today?
Coming to a place of understanding and becoming one with HIV. Until you do this, there is no going on. You have to get comfortable and understand it completely before you can ever expect others to do so. You have to love yourself all the more, and become your own best friend.
What is the biggest change you'd like to see in HIV care? How about in HIV education?
In HIV care, I'd like to see equality across the board -- not only the ability for all in need to have easy and inexpensive access to basic healthcare, but also to all the incidental care that goes along with that, like nutrition and counseling and assistance with managing side effects. The military takes good care of us! I have seen the care other HIV-positive people get, especially those who are living in poverty. I would like to see everyone getting the same high quality of care that we get.
In HIV education, wow! This is something that needs to be geared towards those who are HIV negative, as well as for those who are living with HIV. I would like to see quality education in the public school system, and education provided through commercials on everyday national stations instead of just on MTV. More education never hurts anyone, and it would cut down on the "scary factor" for everyone if people were better educated about HIV.
When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for people living with HIV?
I believe life will get better for everyone, both those with and without HIV. With the studies that are being done around the world, and the attempts to educate the general public, I believe progress is being made. And I do believe there is a cure right around the corner, or at least a way to halt viral duplication.
How do you maintain a positive outlook?
To be honest, I have created a loving and caring relationship around myself by understanding and learning to live with my diagnosis. I wake up every morning and thank God for my family, friends, doctors, nurses and all the people who make my life livable. Then, when I look at all the blessings I have, the day doesn't look so bad. To steal a line from a movie, "Look for the good in people and things, and you will find it." This is a wonderful thing in life. Live and let live.
What has been your overall experience with HIV treatment so far?
It has been good, really good. I have only been on one so-called "cocktail," and it's been good to me. Once I got over the "numbers" game, treatment and taking medication was good.
What is your current CD4 count and viral load count? What was your first CD4 count and viral load count?
Currently my CD4 is 750 to 800, and my viral load is less than 50. When I was first diagnosed, my CD4 was 400 and my viral load was 175,000.
What HIV treatment have you been on, if any? Give the toughest side effects you've faced on treatment.
I am currently on Sustiva and Combivir, five pills a day and they are working great. I also participated in a study where I took interleukin injections to improve my CD4 count, which shot it over 1,500 at one time. That was great, until one guy's gallbladder got destroyed and I experienced elevated triglycerides, which affected my pancreas. I had pancreatitis twice, and I took medication to bring down my triglycerides. I also had a problem with kidney stones for about a year. No one knows why that happened -- it doesn't seem to be related to medications. I totally sympathize with pregnant women now, though! Passing those was horrible.
How often do you see your doctor? How did you choose your care providers?
My doctor was assigned by the Navy Medical system. I see her as often as I need to, and every six months the group of us go for regular physicals and get referrals to specialists if necessary. Unless I need a referral, I just see the same doctor all the time. Like I said, the military takes good care of us.
What kind of relationship do you have with your care providers?
The best! I really can't say enough about the doctors and staff at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. They are the best, and as far as I'm concerned everyone with HIV should have this type of care.
Do you have any health/wellness regimen that you feel helps you stay healthy?
I eat right, exercise, don't smoke or drink. I listen to my doctors and am very strict about taking my medication.
Any adherence tips for other people on treatment?
I'm going to tell you what I've been told: "Whatever works for you." I am not the Palm Pilot/Day timer/watch-wearing type -- I would forget my own head if it wasn't attached. I use a daily pill dispenser that faces me in the kitchen every day so I don't forget and am on time with my medication schedule. I forget once in a while, but when I do I always call my doctor and check to see if there's something special I need to do to compensate. Normally, there is not.
DATING/MEETING NEW PEOPLE
What is your strategy for meeting new people?
As friends, I meet people at the clinic, at meetings and through other friends.
Any tips for dating that you can share with other people who are positive?
I don't have personal experience with this, but my suggestion would be to be upfront and give the person you want to date the option to say "yes" or "no." Like that old saying goes, "If you have something, let it go. If it comes back, then it truly belongs to you," or something like that. You might be surprised by how someone will react, and then sometimes you might not. Just give it a chance, because everyone is different.
What was your first reaction when you were told you'd received this award?
I was flattered. My wife really surprised me, and I was absolutely flattered. But now as it gets a little closer to publication, I am starting to feel like I did when I was first diagnosed. I'm afraid of all the feelings and thoughts that will come from those folks I haven't discussed my status with before now. But I think I am ready for that, and I will go forward from there.
Who would you dedicate this award to, if you could?
My wife, for loving and caring and staying with me through this. I love her and she is the most supportive and devoted person I know on the face of the Earth.
Could you share a little personal information about yourself?
I'm told I am a caring, giving person. I come across as a real ass sometimes, but underneath I am a generous guy. I would give the shirt off my back to someone who needed it. I'm willing to help when I can, and actually have put other people before my own family at times. I am telling you what other folks have said about me.
Where did you grow up?
Pennsylvania. We're moving back there shortly, after I retire -- thank God my family's still there to give us a little land, because if you didn't have land there before, you're sure not going to be able to afford it now!
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
The boy who could fly! I just wanted to be a free spirit, and to share with the world.
What kind of work did your parents do?
Mom was a factory worker, and Father was military and a steel welder and truck driver. They're both retired now.
What kinds of work have you done?
I've worked in a nursing home and a little in retail, but I've been in the U.S. Navy for 25 years -- since I was 18.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Professionally: Ronald Reagan, Colin Powell, Martha Stewart, Walter Doherty, and Teresa Anderson.
Personally: My wife and kids, Mom and Dad, Peg Tackett, Doc Robinson, and everyone living with any type of disease that takes effort to deal with and to go on living day after day.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to spend time with my wife and kids. I also garden, read, research information, cook, as that is my primary job in the Navy. I do catering, and I also have gone to school to become a mortician at a State University; and continue deciding what I want to be when I grow up!
Tell us a little bit about your wife.
I met my wife in Great Lakes, IL back in 1982. We were both in the military. She is the most forgiving, loving person. She's sometimes hard to live with, but truly the most wonderful person I've ever known. She is my complete opposite, and we were made for each other. She recently was selected for her own award "Hometown Hero." We are all proud of her.
Children? (Names, ages, professions if grown.)
My oldest daughter is 21 years old. She's graduating from Pennsylvania College this year with a B.A. in engineering and landscape design. My youngest daughter is 19 years old and she has finished the college she needs and is working on becoming a public firefighter.
Pets? (Name, kind of animal, how long they've lived with you.)
We have four dogs and two cats, which we have had for 10 years.
Where do you live? Describe your community?
We live in a quiet suburb of Virginia, which has a good mix of military and civilian people. It's a diverse area, friendly and a good place to live and raise children.
If you could live anyplace besides where you live right now, where would you live?
Suburb in Pennsylvania -- and we'll be moving there shortly.
What's the biggest adventure you've ever had?
I've traveled all over the world in the military, so I would have to say that going to the Middle East and other foreign lands has been the best. I do love the tastes and smells of the Middle East.
What are you currently reading? What book or author, if any, has had the biggest impact on you?
I'm not reading anything in particular at this time, but usually I read non-fiction.
What kind of music do you like? Which artists do you listen to the most, and who has had the biggest impact on you?
I like to listen to the oldies, and I'd have to say that Nat King Cole has had a big impact on me.
Before you were nominated for this award, did you know about The Body.com or The Body Pro.com? If so, what were your impressions?
Yes, I was introduced to TheBody.com through the Plus Clinic. I read it all the time; I find it very helpful and informative.
Anything else you'd like the people reading this article to know about you?
Just love and understand yourself -- that will make it easier for those around you, be they family, friends or co-workers, to make their decision about how they're going to act. Always be there for someone else, 'cause you never know when you're going to need it back. Good health to you, and "Be Good to Yourself."
Interview by Laura Jones