BALTIMORE, Md. -- As 10-year-old Khalil Quarles opened the front door to his home Dec. 19, he immediately knew something was different -- parked outside on his driveway was an up-armored Humvee.
Just minutes earlier the young boy, dressed in a personalized child-size Army Combat Uniform and with his first pair of dog tags draped around his neck, video chatted with Soldiers assigned to Third Army in Kuwait.
While Khalil and Army Maj. Noland James talked back and forth about life across the pond, last-minute preparations were made as dozens of Soldiers marched down the street to his house to kick off Operation Secret Soldier.
The operation was simple. Khalil suffers from an incurable cancer and has a dream to join the Army. Soldiers assigned to the Army Reserve's 200th Military Police Command worked with the 12th Public Affairs Detachment and Third Army to turn his dream into a reality.
Army Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. Kurtis Timmer, the senior enlisted Soldier of the 200th MPCOM, said the Army Reserve is a community, and its Soldiers are charged with supporting the community they call home.
"Today is about our Reserve Soldiers understanding that it's more than honoring a little boy's wishes -- it's giving back to a community as they support all we do as Soldiers," he said. "By helping out with one event, one family, it shows the whole community how we support them. This is where we work and where most of us reside, so supporting our neighbors is the same as we would do in our neighborhoods. We should do more, not because we're military, but because we're good neighbors."
With his mother, Cypress Mason, and father, Damon Quarles, by his side, Khalil stood wide-eyed and with his jaw hanging low, speechless and seemingly frozen in time as he looked over his front yard that was empty when he returned home from school 15 minutes earlier.
A formation of Soldiers stood to his right, his principal and teachers were grouped in front of him and dozens of neighbors and friends were off to his left.
Almost immediately onlookers erupted into a loud ovation saluting a young warrior, fighting an incurable cancer, who must use crutches to walk.
"This is all for you," his mother softly said into his ear as she helped her son make his way to the two Soldiers waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
Standing in the platoon-size formation was Army Reserve Sgt. Maj. Sheila Lucas.
"It's our chance to say thank-you back to the community," she said in near tears. "We're Soldiers but we're also citizens here. The fact that this little boy wants to be a Soldier fills me with so much pride; he's saying I want to be a Soldier like you."
Lucas said after 38 years of service, she still has the same pride in the Army as she did when she first raised her hand for her Oath of Enlistment.
As Khalil reached the bottom step, Army Reserve Capts. John Barbee and Sherman Pittman reached out to assist him the last few steps to the front of the Humvee.
Pittman said Khalil exemplified many of the Army values, and to be a part of a new chapter in his life was amazing.
"I grew up in a family learning it's better to give than receive, and as a Soldier we not only protect the country but we give back to the community as well," he said. "We want Khalil and the community to know we really care, and we thank them for their support. The smile we're going to see on his face will be priceless."
As Khalil struggled with the crutches down the cement stairs, his mom held his arm for protection.
"He doesn't like being helped," his mother said smiling. "Today, he made an exception."
As he sat down on a folding chair in front of the Humvee, Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Sanford Holman, commanding general of the 200th MPCOM, asked Khalil if he wanted to join the Army.
"Yes sir," he said staring back, locking eyes with the general.
"Well I brought some of my troops here today to help me," Holman said.
Operation Secret Soldier was in full swing.
Two Soldiers unveiled an American flag behind Khalil, while Army Reserve Spc. Amanda Knaus, a logistics specialist for the 200th MPCOM, stood at attention in the nearby formation.
"As a single mom I know how hard it is in general, so I can't imagine the difficulty with raising a terminally-ill child," she said. "You can't help but reach out to Khalil, and being in the Army Reserve is an outlet, a way to help our community."
With his right arm raised high, Holman began to recite the Oath of Enlistment for Khalil to repeat.
Waving a small American flag and struggling to hold back tears, Erin Hill, Khalil's first-grade teacher from North Glen Elementary School huddled with other teachers to witness the emotional ceremony.
She remembered he wrote about being a Soldier, while his fourth grade teacher, Mary Kate Connelly, told how he always built forts.
"This is an amazing young boy," said Hill. "The Army Reserve has done more today for him than anyone could ever imagine. He will remember and talk about this day for a very long time."
As the Oath of Enlistment was finished, and a quick salute from Khalil to Holman sealed the deal, Julie Little-McVearry, Khalil's principal at North Glen Elementary, cheered with the growing crowd surrounding the home.
"He truly is an amazing young boy and you could have not done this for a more deserving person," she said while wiping a few tears away. "The Army Reserve has taken time out of their busy schedule of protecting our nation and our freedom to give back to someone and to a community."
Little-McVearry hugged her teachers and cheered even louder for Khalil as he gave a traditional Soldier's, "Hooah!"
Khalil received a certificate of appreciation, Holman's official coin and an American flag as a small reminder of his day.
"I guess there is only one thing left to do," Holman said.
The deep roar of a Humvee engine broke through the crisp air, as Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Peter Gerow, started up the vehicle.
"You gotta' do whatever you can for this kid and his family: time, money, gifts, whatever it takes," said Gerow.
Soldiers of the 200th helped the young Soldier into the Humvee for a short ride around his neighborhood.
Before the door shut on the Humvee, a Soldier helped Khalil strap on the Army Combat Helmet and fasten his seat belt.
"This helmet's heavier than it looks," he said.
As the Humvee slowly drove down the driveway, the formation of Soldiers saluted their new Soldier.
As Khalil began his Humvee ride, Cora Goecke, a hospice nurse who started the chain reaction of friends contacting friends through social media to make today a reality, stood watching.
Khalil was diagnosed with Synovial Cell Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. While providing routine medical care, Goecke discovered his wish was to be in the Army and meet Soldiers.
As his health worsened and he wasn't able to go trick-or-treating with friends during Halloween, Goecke said she was determined to make his dream come true.
She quickly contacted James, a Soldier deployed to Kuwait, and asked if he would video chat with Khalil. James not only agreed but wanted to take it to the next level. He wanted to bring a Soldier to his home.
James worked with Army Sgt. 1st Class Paige Fluker, 12th PAD, to post a message on a Facebook page geared towards senior enlisted Soldiers. Then the 200th MPCOM took on the mission. After hearing his mother was unable to work due to caring for Khalil, the citizen warriors began spreading the word about a secret Santa mission for a family in need.
"We want Khalil and the community to know we really care, and to thank them for their support of us," Pittman said.
As the Humvee pulled away, Operation Secret Soldier went into the next phase -- the delivery of gifts donated by Army Reserve families for Khalil's entire family. The gifts were quickly hidden, not to be seen by the children until Christmas Day.
Khalil's mom said her son is very optimistic and courageous.
"At first he was upset with his diagnosis, there were tears, but then he said, 'I'm not going to die, I have too much to do,'" she said.
His parents said they had to help him separate cancer and death.
"He's doing so well because he has that positive mind set," his dad said. "He does everything the doctors tell him to do, from radiation, to chemotherapy, to surgery and to physical therapy."
As Gerow pulled the Humvee back onto the driveway, Khalil exited the comfort of steel and thick glass normally used to protect Soldiers from the enemy.
Placed on the hood by Soldiers, Khalil held an American flag high while being interviewed by media.
When asked about his favorite part of the day, he was quick to respond and said, "Of course, the Humvee ride."
When asked what he would dream about that evening, he grinned broadly, clutching the 200th MPCOM coin in his small hand and said, "Army!"
Army Reserve Capt. Mark Bojan took his air assault wings off his uniform and pinned them on Khalil and said "You earned this because you're the bravest boy I know."
Khalil asked Bojan, "How old do you have to be to earn those wings?"
"Eighteen," Bojan replied.
Khalil nodded and smiled, his big brown eyes twinkling knowing he was a few years away from that age.
As neighbors went back to their homes and the Humvee returned to Fort Meade, Khalil's mother said she was going to have to pry the uniform off of him for bed.
"He has already told me he is going to wear it to school tomorrow," she said laughing.
"Mom, I am a Soldier now, I can wear it to school and tell all my friends about tonight," he said looking at his mom with a smile.
"Ok, now it's time for bed," she said. "I am sorry, captain it's time for bed."
"Yes private," Khalil said laughing to his mom as he turned the corner down the hallway.