CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan --
CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan -- Staff Sgt. Cary Chase chases adversity as if life hasn't thrown enough her way. A faint C-section scar speaks of the challenges life has dealt the single mother, while her rippling six-pack defines the challenges she's chosen for herself.
"You have to find comfort in being uncomfortable," she says.
The 34-year-old bodybuilder's mantra traces back to trying times long before she lifted her first dumbbell or set foot on the yellow footprints of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. Her struggles began in Bonaire, her rural hometown in Southeast Georgia, and continue today. She looks at the challenges she's experienced as the foundation of her success.
At age 13, Chase endured what she considers the worst of adversity of her life when ovarian cancer claimed her mother Debby.
The initial diagnosis shocked everyone, said Chase. Debby was a vivacious mother, avid weightlifter and natural beauty who won Miss Southeast Georgia in 1986, approximately ten years prior to her diagnosis. She went on to win second place in the state pageant and kept herself in good shape afterward, showing no signs of terminal illness, said Chase.
Yet her cancer persisted despite radiation therapy, chemotherapy and a hysterectomy. Before passing, she fought on to celebrate one last birthday with all her children, each of whom have August birthdays. She took her last breath Aug. 31, 1996, four days after the 21st birthday of Chase's oldest brother Chris.
After her mother's death, Chase's biological father emerged from a long absence to claim custody of her, she said. Chase left her supportive stepfather, Jim, and her two brothers, Chris and Daniel. She departed from Bonaire to join her biological father in McDonough, Georgia.
Chase isn't sure why he re-entered her life but suspects he was seeking state custody entitlements. She described him as neglectful father who prioritized his romantic relationships over his paternal responsibility, she said. She claimed that on one occasion, he left her at home while vacationing with his girlfriend for approximately a month without paying the bills, causing the water and electricity to shut off.
"My dad did not like me, didn't really want to have anything to do with me, so I just really had to find a reason to live at that point," Chase recalled.
Chase said she believes her broken relationship with her father snowballed into anxiety later in life. She eventually consulted a therapist through the Marine Corps. Her therapy sessions revealed deep-rooted codependency, specifically a desire to earn her father's attention.
However, Chase didn't let her emotionally tumultuous teenage years interfere with her goals.
"I was forced to go through that early in life, so my resiliency just kind of built itself layer upon layer from that point forward, because no matter what came across my plate, I was always able to make it through," she said.
She maintained a 3.74 GPA during high school and got into Gordon State College, in Barnesville, Georgia, where she pursued a business degree for almost two years, she said. When money ran out, she turned to the military and ultimately chose the Marine Corps for the physical challenge.
Just over a week later, Chase found herself at Parris Island, taking on Marine Corps basic training.
"I went from little Southern girl livin' in the middle of nowhere in Southern Georgia to running, and sweating and hating life all within 10 days," said Chase.
Chase said the Marine Corps ultimately bettered her. She formed lasting friendships during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and while stationed in places like Camp Hansen, where she currently serves as the disbursing chief for 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. She even completed college, earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Ashford University.
Chase has set herself up for eventual retirement by hurdling obstacles that end the careers of less determined Marines. She's endured two failed marriages, resulting in three children that she raises independently. She's still technically married to her second husband, who lost his job due to drug abuse, she said. They are legally separated, with divorce looming as an administrative formality, she said.
After suffering through broken relationships with her biological father and both husbands in an effort to earn their approval, she had an epiphany.
"I was 30 years old, driving down the road in a brand-new car that I had bought myself with my three kids in the back, and I looked back in the rearview mirror, and I saw that everything I ever needed and wanted in life, I already had," said Chase. "And while I was working so hard to do things for other people to prove something to someone else, it didn't matter. I had already accomplished everything that I could have set out for myself and more."
Chase then made what she characterized as a life-changing decision. Instead of continuing to live for the approval of others, she began to prioritize her own happiness.
Chase chose to pursue bodybuilding to improve her own self-confidence. She set tangible fitness objectives, like competing as a figure bodybuilder in the 2016 National Physique Committee Japan Okinawa Open, to reach her ultimate goals.
She hired a personal trainer and went to work, forsaking pizza, doughnuts and nearly all empty calories while working out four to six hours a day. Over a three-month period, she dropped 24 pounds while building muscle mass and definition.
Chase's efforts paid off. She won the NPCJ Okinawa Open during July of 2016. In August the same year, she won the Far East Bodybuilding competition in Okinawa. She then rounded out the year with a second-place finish in the NPCJ World Legends Tokyo Open in November.
In 2017, she picked up where she left off, winning the NPCJ Blaze Open in Tokyo during May and returning to NPCJ World Legends Tokyo Open in November, where she avenged her second-place previous-year finish by winning that competition as well.
Cpl. Junior Dennis Jr., a financial technician with 3rd Marine Logistics Group, called her a "walking encyclopedia of gains."
"She pretty much makes you do it," said Dennis, a native of St. Andrew, Jamaica. "Always says, 'Oh c'mon, ten more,' or 'more weight,' or -- especially when it looks like you can possibly do more, and you might be nervous -- she definitely gives you the confidence to overcome any self-esteem issues and any disbelief in yourself or your capabilities."
Like micro-tears that build muscle, the adversity in Chase's life has built resilience. Her sorrows haven't vanished entirely, but they've diminished and given way to newfound joy over time.
On Aug. 31, 2011, exactly 15 years after Chase's mom passed away, she gave birth to twin brothers Hunter and Mason, who she calls the reincarnation of her mother. Chase said she hopes to nurture an environment of love and acceptance where they, along with her 12-year-old daughter Andi, will grow in happiness, self-confidence and resilience.
To help her Marine Corps family, she hopes to show other single mothers and struggling Marines that they can achieve their goals in the face of adversity.
"I've had twins," said Chase. "I've had surgery. I've had two combat deployments, a MEU deployment. I've been back and forth from stateside and overseas, and it can be done … If you have the right determination, and some good leadership, and ask the right questions, it can happen."