By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceDecember 3, 2018
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- While many children dislike being the middle child, Bryce Caldwell saw it as the best of both worlds.
He loved the attention of being younger and once he was thrust into the role of big brother, it sort of became his calling.
Right from when the Caldwell family's third son was brought home from the hospital, Bryce adored and protected him.
"Bryce was always hovering over him, kissing him, hugging him," said Maj. Jeremy Caldwell, his father. "He was just so proud to be an older brother."
Almost a year ago on Dec. 14, 2017, Bryce, a 6-year-old boy who not only loved his brothers but also football, died from a brain tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG.
Earlier that summer, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Bryce visited Denver Broncos players and had the chance to play on a real football field with his brothers.
Although his life was short-lived, Bryce's smile and personality often drew people to him.
"He would have this incredible light about him," Jeremy said in a phone interview. "He was so warm and caring even at such a young age."
Shortly after their son's death, Jeremy's wife, Suzy, found information on a 14-week hiking and fundraising challenge sponsored by the nonprofit organization.
The culminating event was a 26.3-mile strenuous hike through the Talladega National Forest that is completed in one day.
With help from their friends, Will and Kate Searcy, the Caldwells were able to raise more than $42,000 for the challenge -- enough to grant five wishes from children with life-threatening illnesses.
For their efforts, the Caldwells were awarded the Lori Schultz-Betancourt Indomitable Spirit Award last month at the nonprofit's annual conference in Phoenix.
The Caldwells were left speechless when they found out they were considered for the award among the other nominees.
"We never expected when we went on this journey to get an award," Jeremy said.
They also never expected to raise so much.
Dealing with the frustration and grief of losing a child, the Caldwells thought the challenge would help channel those emotions into something positive.
"It was a good way to focus all of that energy," said Jeremy, who is currently a student at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base. He has also deployed to Iraq twice to fly UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Their initial goal was to raise $2,500, the minimum pledge needed for one person to take part in the challenge.
But the outpouring of support they received from the local community and the military community across the world was much more.
"All I can say is that we are blessed we had so many good people behind us, lifting us up at such a difficult time in our lives," Jeremy said.
After seeing their son's joy during his wish trip to the Denver Broncos headquarters in June 2017, Jeremy and Suzy just wanted other families to have the same opportunity.
The trip provided some welcome relief from all the weight put on their shoulders at a time when they constantly worried about medications, doctor appointments and MRI scans.
"You can just focus on your family and enjoy the moment and the happiness that you see in your kid's face," he said. "That's the incredible, almost healing, factor of these wish trips and that was an inspirational part of why we kept pushing to raise the amount of money that we did."
The Caldwells have also raised nearly $8,000 for another nonprofit that supports research to cure pediatric brain cancer like DIPG.
There are even plans to tackle the hiking challenge for a second time.
"I don't know if we'll get to the 40-something thousand dollars again, but maybe we'll just focus on getting to one wish," Jeremy said. "That's the initial goal and we'll see where it goes."