Fourteen-year-old Christopher Blackwell’s dream is to serve in the armed forces, but it’s a dream that’s looking hard to achieve, he said.
Diagnosed with osteosarcoma in February 2009, Christopher has been through several surgeries, more than a dozen rounds of chemotherapy and the fitting for a prosthetic leg. Although he’s still enthusiastic about his dream, he said he worries his prosthetic leg will keep him from being able to enlist. But for one special day on post, nothing kept him back.
“I’ve always been interested in the military,” said Christopher, who visited Fort Benning Friday, thanks to the nonprofit Dreams Come True, which offers once-in-a-lifetime experiences to children with serious illnesses. “I wanted to come out here and see what it was like.”
The day’s schedule included riding in a Stryker, seeing a Rangers in Action demonstration, learning marksmanship, eating at a dining facility and improving his maneuvering skills with the simulated Close Combat Tactical Trainer. All the events were a surprise for Christopher.
“I was shocked,” he said after finding out he was signed up to ride in a Black Hawk helicopter.
The teenager was inducted into Army life for the day. Along with a coin and “Forever Forward” crest, Col. Ryan Kuhn, 197th Infantry Brigade commander, gave Christopher a certificate declaring his honorary membership in the brigade. Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, Fort Benning commanding general, spent time with Christopher in the afternoon, making him a brevet general — a temporary conferment of rank dating back to the Revolutionary War — for his stay on Fort Benning. He also gave Christopher the recently published biography Hope Unseen: The Story of the U.S. Army’s First Blind Active-Duty Officer.
Wearing a uniform he described as “very cool,” Christopher said the trip encouraged him.
“It just gives me some joy, some excitement, some happiness really,” he said. “Soldiers are fighting for our freedom and their lives. I’m fighting so I can stay alive. There is some similarity there.”
The visit was several months in the making. Christopher found out about Fort Benning online two years ago.
“Ever since then he’s wanted to go,” said his mom, Patty Severino. “He’s very inquisitive and very investigative into things he likes. He started out wanting to be a fighter pilot. Then when he lost his leg, he didn’t think he could do that. But he still loves it. This is the first time we’ve gotten to get away between surgeries and chemo.”
Christopher had never been to a military installation besides Eglin Air Force Base, near his home in Jacksonville, Fla.
“He doesn’t have a lot of little interests. He has very few big interests, so when he gets to fulfill one of those, it’s huge,” Severino said. “There’s not a lot to look forward to sometimes during his treatments and protocols so when he’s able to fulfill one of his dreams, it gives him not only something to look forward to; it’s also a source of encouragement.”
Several units supported the event, including the Ranger Training Brigade, the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, the 197th Infantry Brigade and the 194th Armor Brigade.
“It does not get any better than this,” Kuhn said. “There is no other priority within our mission requirements that takes precedence over fulfilling the dreams of a brave child who overcomes a daily challenge much greater than any of us in uniform can comprehend.”
Kuhn said brigade personnel chose activities that were interactive and would give Christopher “some amazing stories to tell all of his friends.”
“We have Soldiers in our military who have never had the opportunity to fly in rotary wing aircraft,” he said.
“This would be a chance of a lifetime for anyone. We sincerely hope Christopher has the time of his life and that his interaction with our Soldiers is the most fulfilling experience he could possibly have. We are extremely honored that a young boy like Christopher respects what our Soldiers do to the point that out of all opportunities available to him, he has chosen to spend time with us. We could not be happier about his decision.”
At the end of the day, Christopher went home with flight wings, a Ranger tab, several unit coins, a Flight Company patch, hats and T-shirts, the model of a Black Hawk and a President’s Hundred Tab. The latter was USAMU platoon sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Charles Coffey’s personal tab, worn on his last deployment to Afghanistan.
“He wanted this to be a guy’s day,” said Christopher’s uncle, Michael Staley, who accompanied him on the trip.
“It’s a great thrill a great learning lesson,” Staley said. “Christopher is never lost for words and seldom to repeat himself. The Fort Benning experience was a day of one word — awesome — repeated over and over — awesome.”
With renewed energy to face his battle with cancer, Christopher summed up the visit, from lifting off in a Black Hawk to meeting and getting an autograph from an Olympic gold medalist, in just a few words.
“I think this has been the best day of my life.”