NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The carefree laughter of a group of children echoed across the flightline during a tour given by the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons here June 8.
The tour was organized by the pilots of the 64th AGRS for the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada. The Candlelighters help children who have been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers and their families cope with and overcome the challenges presented by these diseases.
“I got involved when Mr. Scott Gragson, 57th Adversary Tactics Group honorary commander, purchased tickets for some of the 57th ATG leadership to attend a silent auction for Candlelighters back in April,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Gordon, 64th AGRS director of operations. “Immediately after the silent auction, Lt. Col. Scott Poteet, 64th AGRS Commander, and I were talking on the drive home and had the idea that we wanted to give the children a day at the base. We both agreed that we needed to do something for these kids and do it right. We wanted to give the children something they will remember.”
The day started with Col. Peter Ford, 57th ATG commander, introducing the Airmen who were a part of the tour and telling the children about the mission of the 57th ATG. He ended the introduction by asking the children to have as much fun as possible.
After the introductions, the children got to try on the pilots’ flight gear. They were treated to lunch in the 64th AGRS heritage room and then taken to the flightline. The tour consisted of a static display of a Humvee, an F-15 Eagle and an F-16 Fighting Falcon, with pilots on-hand to answer questions about the aircraft. A crew from the Nellis Air Force Base Fire Department sprayed water in the air above the children to provide relief from the heat.
The children were also given a tour of the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Team, Thunderbirds, hangar and aircraft. The last stop was the Nellis Air Force Base threat training facility, where service members from the 547th intelligence squadron gave them a tour of adversary equipment and let them explore historical helicopters and tanks.
The entire tour was done on a strictly volunteer basis.
“It was actually rather easy to put together,” Gordon said. “As soon as I would call an organization on base and explain to them what we were doing and for what cause, the response was always positive.” “It was easy to devote time to putting this together because you always knew in the back of your mind who it was for.”
It’s more than just the kids, it’s the families, said Danielle Munao, CCCFN family services director. Watching parents watch their kids and knowing that they are having a good time; it kind of makes some of the bad days a little bit tolerable.
“With cancer everything becomes special, any time we can offer our families something like this we will make it happen,” Munao said.
The parents were smiling just as much as their children.
“We just wanted to give the kids a day where they hopefully can forget about what is ailing them,” Gordon said. “I wanted them to get lost in the excitement of seeing our aircraft or all the equipment at the TTF and not have any worries or cares for those five hours they were with us.”
The CCCFN and the service members of Nellis Air Force Base succeeded in making the day memorable for the children and their families.
“The event was incredible,” said Sandra Walberg, the mother of Austin Fitzgerald. “They took such great care of us and made all of the kids feel so special. Knowing that [the service members] spent their whole Saturday on us means so much. It makes you feel supported. Seeing Austin smiling and joking with the guys was wonderful. They really connected with each kid. They treated the kids like they were the incredible ones.”
The Candlelighters try to make all of the families they help feel connected. The group was started by two families supporting each other through the trauma of childhood cancer and they remain committed to retaining that personal touch, Munao said.
“My son was diagnosed with Leukemia in January of 2008. That is when we were first introduced to the Candlelighters,” Walberg said. “They came in and met with us and showed sincere compassion and love. At a time when our lives were crashing around us, they were there to offer support and help carry us.”
The Candelighters’ mission to support these families does not end when a child is brought back to health.
“They have continued to support us all throughout our three year journey with chemo and now that Austin is done with chemo, they still are there to help us find our way back to a new normal,” Walberg said. “They make you feel like once you are a part of the Candlelighters family, you always will be.”