Imagine living overseas as a military child, suddenly finding yourself deathly ill and unable to walk or even raise an arm off the bed. What if the hospitals near you didn’t offer the care you needed or a diagnosis?
Think about the fear of lying in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors who don’t speak your language and who stick you with dozens of needles. This was my journey as a child while my father served as the Bilateral Affairs Officer for the Alabama National Guard in Bucharest, Romania.
My family has always been incredibly proud of my father’s service of 34 years with the Army and the Guard, but our deep appreciation for the National Guard family at large became concrete during crisis.
When I became sick as a child, I was medically evacuated from Romania to Austria and eventually to UAB Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. When we left Bucharest, we had no idea that we would not be returning, so we had a small bag with just a few outfits and not much more to our names.
My parents, younger brother and I would find ourselves in Birmingham with months of treatment and doctor’s visits before I was finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Juvenile Dermatomyositis.
My father had to return to Romania for service before he could rejoin us in the states, which left my mother commuting between family in Montgomery with whom we lived and the hospital in Birmingham each week. I can’t imagine how desperate we would have been, were it not for the National Guard. People we didn’t even know personally became the unsung heroes of my life, and their impact still inspires me today.
I remember when a white Volvo appeared one day as a gift from Chaplain Craig Holloway. I’m not sure I ever even met this chaplain personally, but as a widower, he gifted my family the use of his wife’s vehicle for an indefinite amount of time so that we could make the long drives back and forth to hospitals.
I remember a coworker of my father, Lt. Col. Shannon Hancock, who took immediate action to nominate my family for assistance through the National Guard Foundation, which financially helps families in crises. The money they provided brought more than immediate relief of medical expenses. It carried with it compassionate hope.
I recall that when my father rejoined our family, he carried me to his office in the Joint Force Headquarters. Even a year after my diagnosis, I saw prayer cards posted on bulletin boards around his building, reminding the soldiers daily to remember and pray for me. My family received countless emails and letters of encouragement as a result of these efforts, many from guardsmen we do not know personally.
As I began nine years of treatment, involving monthly hospital Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatments, daily steroids, weekly shots and years of physical therapy to regain strength, I became so thankful for the way that the National Guard family supports its own. Great men like the late Maj. Gen. Abner Blalock helped to keep my father in positions that were commutable from home in the worst years of recovery so he could remain close for that season when I needed him most.
I am proud to stand today as an 18-year-old who has been in remission for several years. I will graduate as valedictorian of my Southside (Alabama) High School class, and I am excited for what I hope will be a healthy and exciting future. I have signed to run cross country and track for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and plan to pursue medicine, in large part due to my childhood experiences.
I was recently awarded the Military Child of the Year for the Army National Guard by Operation Homefront, which will help me pursue my dreams.
While I know that these accomplishments have come with a lot of perseverance and determination, I am the product of many people whose faces I have never seen. I can resoundingly say that I would not be who I am without the consistent encouragement and sacrifice of the men, women and families of the Army National Guard.