Story and photo by Timothy Hale
U.S. Army Reserve Command
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – If you had to live your life over again, what would you do different?
None of us can go back and change what is in the past and we often long for the “good ol’ days” when in reality, those days are right here in the present.
For 5-year-old Ayden Atticus Frail, there is no going back, only looking forward with the wide-eyed excitement that most children his age enjoy.
When you look at him, you would think he’s just like any other little boy. But while his eyes may be bright and blue, they hide the scars of a disease that is wrecking his young body.
Ayden is fighting the battle of his life against a childhood killer – Stage 4 neuroblastoma – a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body.
News of his cancer arrived at home of B.J. and Jennifer Frail last year on Thanksgiving Day. The diagnosis set in motion months of multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments at Children’s Methodist Hospital in San Antonio.
“This is the most freedom he has had nine months,” said Terri Pena, Ayden’s grandmother who accompanied him on the trip from San Antonio.
Like Ayden, Terri is fighting her own battle with cancer with tumors on her lungs and heart. She also Stage 3 breast cancer. Their conditions have formed a strong bond between them as they spend their remaining days together.
“I am terminal as he is,” Terri said. “We’re just trying to do things together so they (family) have a lot of memories.”
After more than nine months of treatments, coming to Fort Bragg was a big change for Ayden.
But on this day, Sept. 18, 2013, Ayden was living out one of his dreams – to be an Army helicopter pilot – as a guest of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment, a U.S. Army Reserve unit at Simmons Army Airfield on Fort Bragg.
Dressed in a flight suit just his size, he clambered about a UH-60 Black Hawk as if he were scaling a jungle gym – all under the watchful eyes of family and U.S. Army Reserve helicopter crew members.
“My most favorite thing about helicopters is they shoot and they fly,” he said.
B.J. said his son has heard discussions about their family’s rich military history, especially during World War II. He said it was only natural for Ayden to sense the pride and honor of what it means to serve in uniform.
“He has a flight suit and a regular U.S. Army uniform he likes to wear,” he said. “Sometimes he goes to the doctor with fatigues on. He doesn’t have a fear of anyone’s thought process.”
His uncle, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Tom Baker, a U.S. Army Reserve Command Safety officer, is also a helicopter pilot.
Although, when asked if he’d like to fly with his uncle, Ayden said, “He doesn’t even know how to drive!” bringing laughter from those gathered in the hangar.
Capt. Steven Hayes, Alpha Company commander, said having a young child like Ayden visit his unit, helps put life in perspective.
“Sometimes we get wrapped up in our duties and we forget, and maybe, in a sense, we start feeling sorry for ourselves,” Hayes said. “Then you realize there is somebody who has it a lot worse than we do."
“It’s our duty to put life into perspective and honor those and give a smile to somebody less fortunate than we are,” he said.
No one knows how long Ayden has, but one thing is for sure – if he beats his cancer, he wants to be a soldier when he grows up “because they protect people.”
It’s that sense of protection that seems to drive Ayden in his fight.
“He says that God sent him here to show everyone how to love one another,” she said. “He has brought thousands upon thousands of people, through his Facebook page, together … for one common cause. We’re all about love and Ayden’s gift is to show love to everyone.
“Ayden is the light of our lives, the sunshine in his smile,” Terri said. “He’s a miracle.”