12-year old Calvary tanker Mason Giove
It took only 6 tank rounds, two tanks and one tank simulator to make Mason Giove's day.
Mason doesn't say much. He's 12 years old, pale, and has trouble lifting his right leg. His father Mark Giove, who helped him walk from the car to the Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tank and Bradley A3 tank, said Mason can't lift his right arm because of a partial paralysis on his right side.
"Wow," Mason said as he approached the tanks.
Mason has been fighting a brain tumor since he was 15 months old. He's two months into his fourth round of chemotherapy.
Mason traveled from Whitman, Mass. (25 miles south of Boston), to Fort Benning on a chilly Friday on a special visit to see real tanks.
"I don't really know exactly what the love of tanks comes from, but from a very early age he's been very interested in all aspects of the military," Mark said. "When other kids are playing these games, he's there watching a movie about D-day or about Vietnam."
Mark said his son's nickname at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where he's treated, is "Mr. Tank." Mark has called Mason that ever since.
Mark said he and Mr. Tank had no idea what they were in for when they visited Fort Benning.
The visit began in the morning when soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Jeff Paine, squadron commander of the 1st Squadron in the 16th Cavalry Regiment, got Mason into uniform.
"We told him, 'Hey, you're going to be a soldier for the day, I need you to get into the proper uniform,'" said Sgt. 1st Class Chad Nebergall. "I brought out a uniform for him. He loved that."
Nebergall said they put a general's patch on Mason's uniform.
"He's the only one-star general in the brigade level," said Capt. Bryce Land, Alpha Troop commander of the 1st Squadron.
The soldiers took Mason and his family out to the Hastings Range and let them stand nearby as they fired six rounds from an Abrams tank. They shot three HEAT (high-explosive anti-tank) rounds, three sabot rounds and the machine gun.
"I had no idea this was going to happen," Mark said. "I had no idea I was going to be standing 30 yards away from a tank and having my chest reverberate."
Land said he jumped at the chance to help plan the visit, including seeing the range.
"Sharing something I love, something that I do every day, with somebody who probably loves it even more, I couldn't help it," Land said.
Paine and Land said they wanted to make sure the trip from Massachusetts was more than seeing a static display of a tank.
"You can't come down here and see tanks and not see the boom," Land said.
The Giove family connected with Paine and Land through a network of family friends. Mark Giove is friends with Eric Runci, a Massachusetts native who works in Atlanta for Aflac. Runci knows Andrew Kloster, a veteran who works as a manager at Fort Benning. Kloster is Paine's neighbor.
"In the military, so often we spend so much time behind fences on post at Fort Benning or somewhere else," Paine said. "There's a whole huge country out there with people that we're part of and responsible to and here to defend. When we get an opportunity like this to come reach out to them, it's something we just love to do."
According to Kloster, Mason has a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare childhood brain tumor that sits in the middle of his brain next to his thalmus. He struggles with communication, feeding and muscle weakness.
Mason's tumor grows slowly and in strange directions. Mark said the doctors are fighting the tumor the same way it grows: with slow rounds of chemotherapy that last all year.
"(Fighting cancer is) all he's known his entire life," Mark said.
The constant struggle has been hard on his family, according to Mark.
"It's really tough on my wife," he said. "He's a tough little kid. I get a lot of inspiration from him but it's not easy at all. Taking care of him, it's like we have another 3-year-old."
At the same time, Mark said he can see some where Mason's cancer has forced their family to become closer.
"I tell people all the time that I would take his cancer away in a heartbeat if I could, but I wouldn't take what it's given my family and me," Mark said. "It made me who I am."
Mason's friends and family express great admiration for him as well. Kloster called him "smart and inquisitive" and "loving and fun."
That day at Fort Benning, Mason's cancer meant helping him into and out of the tanks. He explored the insides, tried on the helmets with noise-canceling headphones and got a tour of the equipment from the members of the 16th.
When they were done, the soldiers presented him with several gifts, including a Class A jacket from Staff Sgt. Dennis Mathews, a t-shirt with the phrase "Keep Calm and Load Sabot" and the metal core of a HEAT round that had been fired earlier that day on the range.
Mason who reacted mostly through wide smiles, summed up his feelings about the day afterwards in the tank simulator in three words.
"I loved it."