ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — He arrives for breakfast at a diner in St. Petersburg’s Gateway neighborhood bedecked in a black T-shirt with the only identity he ever desired emblazoned on the front, in white capital letters.
“I pretty much knew from my early childhood that all I wanted to do was be a Marine,” Terry Beale says over a small glass of water and modest bowl of fruit.
He joined upon graduating from Tampa Catholic in 1989, following the path of his dad, two older brothers and a brother-in-law. He served in the Gulf War, and later the Marine Corps Reserve. His goal is to build a self-sustaining haven for struggling veterans. His English bulldog is named after Chesty Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history.
“He is a Marine through and through,” said longtime friend Erika Sullivan, who sat in front of Beale in practically every class in high school. “He lives by it.”
At 50, Beale has little more to offer his beloved corps and fellow veterans than his heart and soul these days. Both still function at a robust rate. Many of his other significant organs, however, are gone.
Beale has no kidneys, no bladder, no thyroid, none of the four parathyroid glands and neither of his ureters. He undergoes dialysis three days a week and has had nine inches of large intestine turned into a Florida Pouch — or neo-bladder — in case he ultimately gets a kidney transplant.
He requires hearing aids and experiences nerve and joint pain ranging from subtle to severe. To this day, he remains convinced his myriad afflictions stem from the various elements to which he was exposed in Saudi Arabia three decades ago.
“I’m a mess,” said Beale, separated with no children. “I’m kind of walking wounded, but I refuse to give up.”
On Saturday, he’ll carry all the resolve he can cram into his 155-pound frame to the starting line of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 5-kilometer race. He hopes his participation will inspire other veterans struggling physically or otherwise and raise organ-donor awareness.
But most of all, Beale wants to do it because he still can.
“For me, the spoils are crossing that line,” he said, “because it’s validation that I’m still alive.”
Born to serve
Two months after turning 19, Beale — the youngest of six kids — landed in Saudi Arabia with the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion. At that point, the U.S. was completing Operation Desert Shield, accumulating troops and helping coalition forces defend Saudi Arabia in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Before being deployed, he said he was required to take “an ungodly amount of vaccines.” Though promoted from private to lance corporal while overseas, he still ranked low on the enlisted-personnel hierarchy. As a result, Beale was relegated to what he deemed “garbage detail” that included burning trash and human waste.
He also recalls a neighboring unit bombing a chemical compound that he said contained sarin gas, blowing “a cloud” over the nearby troops and setting off alarm tags on their gear.
“To be honest with you, I had more issues with the aftermath, like doing battlefield cleanup and that kind of stuff,” Beale said. “That’s where I believe all the hazardous exposure came from — dead bodies, all that stuff. If I could pinpoint stuff, I would say that’s where some of the really bad stuff came from.”
After a six-month tour, he returned home and was placed on reserve duty. When his mother suffered a relapse of cancer, Beale was granted a transfer to an artillery-reserve unit in Jackson, Miss., to be closer to his parents, who had built their dream home a couple of hours away. By then, he was waging routine bouts with skin rashes, which he described as “little red dots that would eventually dry out.” Chronic bronchitis and a constant sick feeling followed.
“Every other month I was feeling like I had the flu, coughing, losing my voice and that kind of stuff,” Beale said.
Then came the kidney stones, in ruthless succession. Initially, Beale thought he had suffered a back injury, but finally sought medical help when the stones grew larger and left him incapacitated.
He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 and eventually underwent 28 extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) procedures, which use shock waves to break the stones into tiny particles.
That excruciation was a precursor to the ordeal that followed.
“If anybody’s had reason to give up, it’s been him,” Sullivan said. “Just based on surgery alone.”
By 2017, Beale found himself in end-stage renal failure, his kidneys barely functioning. Bilateral nephrostomy tubes were inserted to help his body drain urine. During a surgery to remove scar tissue and his ureters in an effort to stop kidney swelling, his doctor discovered pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that can cause infection in the blood or vital organs.
“The urology surgeon from Tampa General ... a phenomenal guy who saved my life, said all of the problems that happened with my kidneys and bladder were caused by pseudomonas aeruginosa,” Beale said. “It had been encapsulated in my ureters and had been slowly poisoning me over time since Desert Storm.”
Complicating the surgery was a kidney hemorrhage, causing Beale to lose four units of blood and, ultimately, the organ. Roughly three years later, Beale had a second procedure to remove the other kidney and his appendix. Nine inches of large intestine also were removed for the formation of a Florida pouch, a urine reservoir that essentially replaces the bladder.
If and when a kidney donor is found, the Florida pouch will serve as a de facto bladder. Until then, he regularly pumps 100 milliliters of saline into it, via a catheter inserted into an opening near his navel. For now, Beale doesn’t urinate; excess fluid is discharged during dialysis, which he undergoes three days a week for several hours at a time.
Additionally, he’s limited to roughly a liter of fluid per day. Alcohol is out; so are fried foods. He must avoid calcium-rich products and those heavy in phosphorous and potassium. If he does crave a few bites of, say, Italian food, he must accompany it with binders (“big horse pills”) that attract and bind toxins to facilitate their passage out of the body.
“Until such time that I get a kidney, I actually have to exercise (the pouch) every day,” said Beale, who receives full VA benefits. “I have to keep the tissue exercised and viable, or it will go stagnant and die. And it will be useless.”
That process might be a metaphor for the Marine himself.
Between dialysis treatments, Beale remains too busy to languish, filling his life with pursuits ranging from the cardio to the culinary.
“He is a bit intense,” said Katie Gray, a friend whom Beale has helped lose 60 pounds in the last year. “I told him, ‘If you weren’t a Marine, you wouldn’t still be alive.’”
Surrender’s no option
Four months after losing his second kidney, Beale showed up at Fort DeSoto Park and participated in a Veterans Day 10-mile bike ride sponsored by Long Walk Home, a non-profit group that assists veterans struggling to transition back to civilian life. He said he recently completed the prerequisites to become a Long Walk Home mentor.
“The biggest battle we have is when we get back,” he said. “You get a pat on the ass and a ‘good game,’ and you’re sent on your way to try and re-acclimate to a civilian world, and we’re not meant for that. We’re built for war. You never feel like you fit again.”
He also grows fruits, vegetables and herbs behind his south St. Petersburg apartment he shares with Chesty Bug II, his service dog in-training. Acquaintances say he has evolved into an accomplished cook.
“Like none other,” said Sullivan, who allowed Beale to live with her daughters and pets in her New Tampa home following his harrowing surgery resulting in the loss of his first kidney. “It really doesn’t matter what he’s got, he’s going to make a four-course meal that’s going to be the best you’ve ever had.”
His ultimate goal is to purchase a few acres of land and convert it to a getaway for struggling veterans. Beale envisions a shelter for lodging and cooking, as well as workshops (for woodwork, auto repair, etc.) and of course a sprawling garden.
“How is that not inspiring?” Gray said. “He’s just amazing. He just makes me want to be a better person.”
But the short-term goal is Gasparilla, which he hasn’t run since 1978, the event’s inaugural year. While he realizes the challenge considering his physical condition, Beale plans to start and finish the race running.
He’ll do it bedecked in a flak vest with a sign bearing his blood type (o-positive), phone number and the message, “I NEED A KIDNEY.”
“I believe when I didn’t bleed out on that (operating) table that I was here for a reason,” he said. “And I believe that reason is to try and help other veterans to keep the fight. I feel like through my continued struggles and little victories,” Beale said, “that I can kind of show other veterans that you can be beat up, and still not have to give up.”