How do you say thanks to the medical team that treated you for head and neck cancer? For Mark Atkinson, 68, of Charlotte, words weren’t enough.

So he did what only an Air Force vet who devoted his life to defending his country would do. He presented U.S. Air Force Recognition Coins to the oncologist and her colleagues from Novant Health Cancer Institute - Elizabeth who went above and beyond the call of duty.

This Veterans Day (Nov. 11), the veteran is doing the honoring.

“My presentations of these coins to Dr. (Obiageli) Ogbata and staff members is minor compared to what they did for me,” Mark said. “Their attention to detail saved my life. These coins represent excellence and that is what I received.”

A native of Syracuse, New York, Mark’s father, Mark Sr., was a U.S. Air Force lifer. Mark graduated from high school in 1974, enlisted in the Air Force and gave 34 years to military service. That includes three months in Iraq and six months in Saudia Arabia, where he was under fire from missile attacks during the Gulf War. He retired in 2008 with the rank of chief master sergeant. He loved the military. It gave him discipline and taught him how to lead, qualities that served him well as mayor of the village of North Syracuse, for four years.

“The military is part of who I am,” Atkinson said. “I look back and I’m very happy with what I’ve done in my life.”

U.S. Air Force Recognition Coins
U.S. Air Force Recognition Coins
Thanking his team

Mark Atkinson presented U.S. Air Force Recognition Coins to four members of the Novant Health team that treated him for head and neck cancer. “All personnel that I came across were professional and helpful,” he says. “These four went above and beyond when taking care of me:”

Dr. Obiageli Ogbata: “She was so into me getting better. She was living it with me.”

Oncology radiation technician Sean Shanahan: “During the 35 radiation treatments that I received, Sean performed the majority of them and always exceeded my expectations.”

Speech language pathologist Diane Meadows: “As I went through my ups and downs, Diane had some ideas on different ways to alleviate my health problems.”

Outpatient oncology dietician Vaishali Sheikh: “Her enthusiasm just pours out of her when you talk to her.”

Mark and his wife, Helen, moved to Charlotte in 2015 to be near their two daughters and four grandchildren. Everything changed when the lump in his neck was diagnosed as cancer in January 2023. Radiation and chemotherapy followed.

This is when another lesson he learned in the military came to the fore: Don’t worry about things you can’t control. That includes a cancer diagnosis. “I wasn’t freaked out,” Mark said. “It happens. I just had to deal with it.”

Mission accomplished.

“He was the ‘poster child’ excellent patient,” Ogbata, his oncologist, said. “He did everything he was asked to do – took notes, measured how much fluid he drank and followed recommendations to the letter. He kept a daily journal during his treatments and brought them to his office visits.

“It does not surprise me that he is cancer-free,” Ogbata added, “and that he is projected to have a good outcome.”

The military taught Mark yet another lesson: To recognize those who personify excellence, sacrifice and service.

U.S. Air Force Recognition Coins – also known as Challenge Coins – are made of metal. They weigh less than a pound and fit into the palm of your hand. One side features the U.S. Air Force insignia. The other side of the ones that Mark handed out are inscribed with his name and these words: AIM HIGH...FLY FIGHT WIN and on the bottom AIR FORCE.

The American military tradition of handing out these coins goes back a century. Its origin is the stuff of legend. That’s another way of saying no one is exactly sure how this all began.

The most oft-repeated assumption, and most romantic, is this: During World War I, an American pilot’s plane is shot down over Germany. He’s captured by the Germans, who take away everything that can identify him. Except they missed the bronze medallion. The rest is history (perhaps). The lieutenant escapes. He encounters French soldiers. They are about to execute him, thinking he is a spy for the Germans. He pulls out the medallion. A Frenchman recognizes the emblem representing the pilot’s flying squadron. Instead of shooting him, they give him a bottle of wine.

There was no wine when Mark came to thank his caregivers at the Cancer Institute near Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. Only the coins and a special handshake from Mark. Rather than just handing out the coins, he placed it in his hand palm up and transferred it to the recipients as he shook each one of their hands.

“The medal,” Ogbata said. “Such an honor.”

Mark is confident he is on the other side of cancer. But a lifetime of military service has taught him to be ready for anything. He still has some Recognition Coins. “Hopefully I won’t have to use them anymore.”

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