By Jim Hughes, Command Information OfficerDecember 2, 2010
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- It's not every day the opportunity arises to make an ill young person's wishes come true.
But Nov. 30 was just such a day for the Fort Rucker community.
As part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Nicholas Karels, who suffers Becker's muscular dystrophy, experienced the life of a pilot at Fort Rucker and the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
The community went above and beyond what was expected, said Lee Karels, Nicholas' father.
Nicholas, his father, mother, and younger brother and sister traveled from Appleton, Wis., to experience the post's VIP treatment for a day.
"It's been just phenomenal, much better than we could ever have hoped for," Lee said. "They did so many special things for Nick to make him feel just extra special today."
Nicholas lost his ability to walk about six years ago, Lee said.
"He plays a lot of military-type video games - he kind of lives vicariously through them," he said. "You become that character - you feel like you're the guy running through the woods and doing all that stuff. It's his escape."
That escape led to an interest in the military and Aviation, his dad said.
"When he's not on the games, he's looking up military stuff on the Internet and learning about the aircraft and different weapons. It fascinates him."
His original wish to the foundation was to ride in an Apache, but the nature of the helicopter called for some mission adjustments.
His day started off by watching an air assault where two CH-47 Chinooks picked up warrant officer candidates to transport them to another training area. He then went to Hanchey Air Field where the 18 year old sat in an Apache while experiencing the night vision system in the aircraft. He learned how pilots fly with one eye while using it, said Lt. Col. Scott Halverson, 1st Battalion, 14th Aviation Regiment commander.
Halverson, in charge of the unit that trains the country's Apache pilots, said he saw some elements in Nicholas of what he looks for in a pilot.
"He asked all the right questions. He wanted to know how fast it can go, how high it can go and what it can shoot. That's everything we want from our junior Apache pilots we have coming through here - 'What can the aircraft do and what can I do with it''"
The Karels family also visited Knox Air Field to tour a CH-47 Chinook; ate lunch at the dining facility with Brig. Gen. Anthony G. Crutchfield, USAACE and Fort Rucker commanding general; flew in an Apache simulator; visited a UH-60 Black Hawk; got a tour of the post and visited the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.
Make-a-Wish mission accomplished, according to the Karels.
"He's pretty shy and he doesn't show a lot of emotion, but every time we got back in the van after doing something, he would just talk non-stop about it," Lee said. "I think it's been much better than he even imagined."
A man of few words, Nicholas described the visit as "pretty good."He said his favorite part was sitting in the Apache, and described the night vision system as "awesome."
While the visit, experiences, and also the various hats, patches, coins and also a flag that was presented to him that was flown on one of the Chinooks that 1st Battalion, 223rd Aviation Regiment crews flew during the air assault seemed to leave a big impression on Nicholas, it also left an impression on those providing the VIP treatment.
"It's an incredible honor to meet someone like Nicholas and provide something as simple as this," Halverson said. "We're honored to be a part of making his dream come true. I wish him all the best. We have challenges here, but we're not nearly going through the challenges he's going through."
Nicholas also left an impression on Crutchfield.
"He's a bright young man - it's astounding what he knows," the general said. "He's really interested in what we do in the military and Army Aviation, and it warms my heart to talk about what we do with someone like that. He has a very active mind, he is inquisitive, and that is a good thing for young people today - to learn about the environment around them.
"This visit means a lot to him and his family, and it means a lot to us, too," Crutchfield added.
The general feels that Nicholas' visit is a win-win for everyone.
"When we're able to open up to the American public, they will go back and talk to people who know nothing about the military - or they may think they know bad things or hear rumors. Then the people we've met can say, 'No, that is not true. I met these Soldiers at Fort Rucker and they are not like that - this is how it is.' And we can reaffirm to this family and the public that their military is strong and ready to defend our country. After all, they are taxpayers, and they're the reason we're here."
CW3 Joshua Locke, a 1st Battalion, 223rd Aviation Regiment CH-47 instructor pilot who escorted Nicholas during the tour of the Chinook, echoed those sentiments.
"It's always a pleasure to take the time to make someone's life a better place - that's kind of the Army's role in the first place," Locke said. "It gives us a chance to embody some of the values we practice in the Army."