At 1-year anniversary of cancer diagnosis, teen gets dream visit to Fort Benning
April 20, 2011
- Make-A-Wish sponsors teen's visit to Fort Benning.
- Christopher McNally is 16 and has been battling osteosarcoma for a year.
- McNally's received the full trainee treatment - haircut, ID tags and boots.
- B Company Soldiers cheered 'Chris, Chris, Chris' while he negotiated the obstacles and spontaneously broke out in the Soldier's Creed.
FORT BENNING, Ga., April 20, 2011 -- Christopher McNally received his orders April 6, 2011, to report to Fort Benning, Ga.
Like others before him, his first stop on post was the 30th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception). Unlike the others, McNally is only 16 years old, and has been battling osteosarcoma for a year.
"I was completely surprised," McNally said of his invitation to Fort Benning, a request granted by the nonprofit Make-a-Wish Foundation.
"Probably nothing in my life will ever match this, unless I actually get into the military," he said. "I'm being treated like an honorary member. I kind of just asked to come here - do an obstacle course, shoot a few guns, get sent home. I underestimated 100 percent. With all they've done for me, it's incredible."
McNally's military visit started Wednesday with in-processing on Sand Hill. He received the full trainee treatment - a haircut, ID tags, boot fitting, personalized uniform. His parents, Robert McNally and Eva Gajewski, and his 14-year-old brother Michael, watched him take the oath of enlistment.
Col. Terry McKenrick, 192nd Infantry Brigade commander, said seeing him sworn in was a special moment for Soldiers like himself and the brigade's senior noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Clyde Glenn, both who have given more than two decades of their lives to serve their country.
"Some Soldiers in formation were just in the Army for a week," he said, "but for all of us - to see a young man who went through the most challenging time in his life, more challenging than most of us will ever go through - for him to want to become a Soldier for a few days is an incredible feeling for all of us who served."
"He thinks we're doing something special for him, but really he's doing much more for all of us by motivating and inspiring us," McKenrick explained. "When you think about the Army values he's demonstrated by what he's accomplished over the past years, it makes us so proud to serve."
McKenrick said he hopes McNally returns to Fort Benning, the next time as a full-fledged American Soldier.
Along with the National Infantry Museum, which the family toured Tuesday, units across post supported the visit, including the Ranger Training Brigade, 197th Infantry Brigade, 198th Infantry Brigade, 199th Infantry Brigade, U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 194th Armored Brigade and 75th Ranger Regiment.
In his few days on Fort Benning, McNally rode in a Black Hawk helicopter, observed physical training and combatives, fired a rifle, machine gun and sniper rifle, climbed inside a Bradley and Stryker, rappeled down Eagle Tower and maneuvered a simulated vehicle in the Close Combat Tactical Trainer. He wrapped up his visit with the Best Ranger Competition.
Gajewski said her son has been interested in the military since early childhood. When he was diagnosed with cancer last year, that interest became inspiration, she said.
McNally wore a shirt bearing the Soldier's Creed and kept an Army Strong T-shirt hanging on the wall while he went through chemotherapy. Because of the cancer, he had to have his knee and 8 inches of his femur removed and replaced with a prosthesis.
"It was pretty much the military that got him through chemo - that whole motto 'stay strong,'" Gajewski said. "He's probably not going to be able to serve, but they allowed him to be a Soldier for a week and that's an absolute wish come true. That was his dream, to be in the military."
Although his fight is different, Gajewski said her son had to exercise courage to continue, and the trip to Fort Benning was "beyond his wishes."
"It was coming up to the one-year anniversary, so he's been very down," she said. "The thoughts go through your head: Is the cancer going to come back' There's always a chance. This is the most he has smiled in probably months. I can tell right now his mind is swirling. He feels like he doesn't deserve it, but he does. He was a Soldier in a different way."
McNally said the whole trip was "indescribable."
"I just have this fascination with Soldiers: their creed, their motto, their honor. That's what I like, the history of it, the bravado of it all," he said. "If I'm not able to do any of this because of medical reasons, I got to do it now and that's probably the best thing I could ever ask for. It gives me encouragement."
Like other Soldiers who come to Fort Benning for training, McNally faced and overcame challenges, most notably the obstacle course on Sand Hill and the 34-foot tower on Eubanks Field.
"It was quite an emotional event," said Lt. Col. Chris Willis, 2nd Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, commander, after watching McNally climb a rope, crawl through trenches, cross a horizontal ladder and more.
Willis and Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Brown presented McNally and his brother with battalion coins, backpacks and unit crests. Brown gave the older teen his own drill sergeant, Pathfinder, Jumpmaster and Combat Infantryman Badge.
"Chris and his brother Mike completed the course in 12 minutes, while our platoons of Soldiers took at least 19 minutes each," Willis said. "The B Company Soldiers cheered 'Chris, Chris, Chris' while he negotiated the obstacles and spontaneously broke out in the Soldier's Creed at one point. It was the highlight of the week for Command Sergent Major Brown and myself. The family was extremely appreciative and could not believe how much the Army was doing. The funny thing is we probably enjoyed it more than they did."
At the 34-foot tower, McNally conquered his initial fear and jumped out four times in quick succession.
Onlookers from the ground couldn't tell he had reservations, but McNally likened the decision to jump the first time with the willpower he's needed in his struggle against cancer.
"To me, jumping out is just taking a first step," McNally said. "I had to take the first step - I had to make the decision to go to chemo. I have to make a decision every day to do my medication. I had to make the decision to have my femur cut out and replaced with this synthetic rod."
"You're never going to get anywhere unless you make those decisions, even if you're stepping out into oblivion or stepping into the unknown," he said. "The first time's always difficult, but if you don't jump out, you're never going to go."