For those of you who know me, you can attest to the fact that it is a rare occasion that I am speechless, but Kaiden’s Make A Wish trip maxed out my quota for the year. Trying to find the words to describe the experience has been challenging to say the least. Epic comes closest, but seems most fitting for the kick butt, tough stuff of helo rides, mountain tops, guns, and loud, fast, chest rattling jets. Those things are only part of this story though. The other part is the people we met along the way. For these folks, I’m finding it much harder to adequately describe how we felt because they were neither anything I expected, nor anything I’ve encountered before. I’ll try to do this without gushing too much, but no promises. Consider yourselves forewarned.
I try very hard to find something good in everything, even tragedy. I had a difficult time doing that with Kaiden’s diagnosis at first; however it has seemed to come clearer with every leg in our journey. I said from the beginning that Kaiden being diagnosed with Leukemia thrust us into a whole new world that we never even knew existed. It was a new world of medicine and technology yes, but more importantly, of people. Phenomenal, incredible, truly awe inspiring people who make a difference every day in what they do and how they do it. That continued to hold true during our experience with his wish. It is staggering to think about everything that went into this and everyone who contributed to making this a reality. Especially within the Make A Wish foundation and TOPGUN. Both of these organizations are simply amazing.
Make A Wish exists for the sole purpose of giving children who rarely have much to smile about really big reasons to smile. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps exist to protect and serve, but are rarely used to kids being in their everyday world. This wish of Kaiden’s got to introduce a little of each organization to the other and a whole lot of both of them to us. The good I have seen come out of this journey of ours is that Kaiden , and we as his family, have had the distinct pleasure of meeting so many incredible people; but we know he has also had the honor of touching other peoples’ lives and hearts in return. It is in this way I hope he has been, and will continue to be able to give a little back to both of these organizations and all of the people who participated in making this wish such a dream come true.
From beginning to end, this entire experience has been absolutely extraordinary. There are more thank-you’s than we will probably ever be able to say, but I would like to try to mention a few. I have to start with the staff from American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison who sent Kaiden’s recommendation to Make A Wish. They are truly who started the wheels in motion for us. We are very thankful for this, or we probably would have never known that Make A Wish is not just for children who are terminal, but also those who have had to fight through a life threatening illness.
Secondly, of course are the Make A Wish folks from across the country who worked on arranging (and re-arranging) the details of Kaiden’s trip. There have literally been people from across the country collaborating in order to make sure Kaiden got the trip of his dreams. I can’t say enough about this incredible organization and the work they do. It is clear that their one and only mission is to put smiles on children’s faces, and provide life changing experiences to kids who have had to battle adversity no child should ever have to know. Their dedication to making children’s dreams come true is right up there with the likes of parents. Shameless plug—> For anyone reading this who has un-committed charity dollars or hours to give for the year, I strongly urge you to consider this organization. I guarantee you will get back tenfold in smiles what you give in time or monetary donations.
And then…of course, the staff and families of TOPGUN. I cannot simply say Navy, because it was so many more. Each and every person we met was genuinely happy to be a part of our experience, and it showed all over their faces and in every greeting and gesture extended to us. From the commanders to the instructors, the students and staff; every person on the base seemed to convey that their only mission during our stay with them was to put a smile on Kaiden’s face in any way they could. I cannot even comprehend the amount of effort that went into coordinating and executing everything that we experienced. This didn’t stop with the people on base though. This was truly a family affair, with wives, children and even family in several states away contributing and participating in providing us with such a gracious welcome to the extent we were literally welcomed as part of their family. I cannot say enough to convey how embraced and honored we felt. They went above and beyond to make Kaiden feel like a larger than life V.I.P. during his stay in Fallon. It was a deeply humbling experience to have such amazing people making us feel as though we were the amazing ones. The words I struggle most to find are those to describe the heartfelt gratitude we feel. Their inherent desire to serve others and their commitment to excellence is apparent in all they do. We consider ourselves blessed beyond belief to have had the privilege of spending time with men and women of their caliber and are better people for it.
Thank you a million times over for everything you all did to make our little boy’s wish come true.The Trip! Day 1 Wednesday, March 13 – We’re Off! We started out our adventure at around 3 a.m. Wednesday, March 14th when the limo arrived to pick us up and whisk us off to Milwaukee to board the plane. As you can imagine, you would have never known it was 3 a.m. judging by the boys’ energy level. It was crazy fun! I texted WIXX and asked them to play a song and dedicate it to Kaiden for his trip. Rachel Leigh was kind enough to play some Black Eyed Peas ‘I Gotta Feeling’ for us and Kaiden’s eyes just lit up when he heard her mention his name – thank you Rachel!We then got to board our Southwest flight from Milwaukee to Las Vegas. Our wish grantors from Make A Wish had given us a letter to provide to the Southwest crew. We were instructed not to open it, only to hand it to the Southwest crew for our flight when we got to the airport. Just prior to the boarding for our flight, they called Kaiden and the rest of us to the gate and allowed us to board the plane first. The captain then invited both of the boys to crawl into the cockpit and check it out. They showed them the controls and allowed us to snap a couple of pictures of them. This was the first “this is the best day ever!” of the trip with many more to follow of course. Thank you to Southwest airlines for your extra care in the air!
After changing planes in Las Vegas to head to Reno, about 14 hours of travel in all, we arrived in Reno where we were met by April from Make A Wish who helped get us from the airport in Reno to our hotel in Fallon for a quick change out of our Wisconsin clothes into more weather appropriate attire since it was just a little warmer there than when we left! It felt so good to be warm and not see any snow! She stayed with us and got us to the base. Given the long day we’d had so far I’m not sure we would have wanted to try to navigate our way on our own, so we were very thankful for her being there to guide us. Thank you April!
Upon arrival at the U.S. Naval Air Station Fallon, we were greeted by the MP’s, the photographer who hung out with us for the trip to capture our experience and one of Kaiden’s new friends, call sign “Mob”, who told Kaiden he was there for anything he needed during his stay. Kaiden took to him like a duck in water and literally became his little shadow for the duration of our stay. The MP’s told the boys they could each get in a vehicle and they provided us with a police escort from the gate through the base. What a way to start things out! Of course, everyone had to pull over for the sirens (that the boys no doubt got to turn on), and we instantly felt like V.I.P.s while everyone looked on to see who was coming and what all the fuss was about. The marquee had a personalized sign welcoming us and when we pulled in to park we even had reserved parking with personalized signs for ‘Kaiden Lambert and family’. Can you say ‘red carpet’?! Then it was time to get down to business.
When we got inside, the boys each got photo I.D.s issued to them and we were led to Commander Kevin “Proton” McLaughlin’s office where he welcomed us and issued the boys their TOPGUN instructor t-shirts, helmet bags, and their very own flight suits and bomber jackets, equipped with patches emblazoned with their new call signs “Lambo” and “The Hoove”. Oh, and their homework. They were informed that they were behind their classmates by a few weeks and would have to work hard to complete their PQS’s (Personal Quality Standards) in order to graduate with their class and obtain their TOPGUN patches. Later on in the trip, the homework turned out to be a bit of a surprise to the staff when the boys took it a little more seriously than anticipated. The boys took any and every opportunity to bring them up in order to make sure they got them done in time! After they showed us around a bit it was time for a little relaxation so we followed Mob and Proton over to the Officer’s Club for a bite to eat. It was here Kaiden was presented with the first challenge coin he would receive as an honorary guest. He was so enthralled with it he wouldn’t let it out of his hands. Much to the boys’ dismay, it wasn’t long before it was time for us to retire to our hotel for some much needed shut-eye. I swear they would have gone another four hours had we not dragged them out, but us old people needed our rest before an early wake-up call to be back on base at 0730. By the time we all got settled into bed, it had been about a 21 hour day for everyone. Zzzzzzzzzz.
Day 2 – Thursday, March 14 – The Range
Little did I know how early a wake-up call I would get. At 0430 I feel a tap, tap, tap on my arm. “Mom. Mom, get up. I need to work on my homework!” His enthusiasm was so cute I couldn’t even be upset, and fortunately the time difference was in our favor, so while it was only 0430 there, our bodies told us it was 0630 and time to get up! So, I dutifully hauled out the laptop and started helping Lambo look up answers to his homework. We didn’t get too far before it was time to get cleaned up and head out the door.
When we arrived on base we were greeted at the gate and shown back to our parking spots at the main building. From there, the boys went with Mob and the adults each got into one of two trucks to head out to the range. Little did we know what we were in store for… They had eluded to us the night before that the boys may get an opportunity to ride in a helicopter, but we had no idea what a ride it would be! While we drove out to the range, they were in getting their gear on to get into the helo and meet us out at the range, which was about a 20-30 minute drive for us. (I literally lost all track of time while we were there, so that time estimate might be a bit off.) At almost exactly the same time we were pulling up, we could see the helicopter approaching and I almost fell over myself trying to get out of the truck fast enough to get pictures. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was already shaking with anticipation of how excited they must be and how cool this was. Again…little did I know…
I made a desperate attempt to try to get pictures of them landing, but fell short of what I wanted to capture amidst the cloud of sand and dust pelting us. If ever there were a way to feel an iota of what these guys have to go through during deployment in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, I imagined this to be it. We were all literally chomping sand and scratching it out of our scalps the rest of the day – it was awesome! I know it sounds bizarre but I loved being able to get out there and get our hands dirty, so to speak. It just made the whole experience that much more authentic and real. I’ve always had a profound respect for our military and what they selflessly endure for our benefit, but this glimpse into their life just cemented it that much more.
Once the boys got off the helicopter and managed to get the perma-grins on their faces to settle down a bit, they joined us on a platform where we watched their helicopter take off. There were some radio communications going on, no doubt to signal the next event in our experience. While we were waiting for that, one of the Navy Seals who had driven us out to the range gave Kaiden his sniper necklace, and Kaiden just beamed at him like he was larger than life. Shortly after that, there was another helicopter flying in, but not the same one that brought the boys out to the range. This one was “shooting” (blanks) at us as they staged a mock extraction. It flew in, let a team off, took off again and made several passes over us continuing to shoot at us. The deck where the helicopters had landed was metal and you could hear the shells pinging off of it as they passed over shooting. Another slight glimpse into the world our military men and women face in serving their country while keeping us safe and buffered from ever having to experience it ourselves. Up next were the stars of the show as far as Kaiden was concerned.
As we climbed down off of the platform and took some pictures with the crews of the helicopters, we gathered on the deck where the helicopters had been landing and taking off. We had little warning for the first jet, other than to see a small speck in the sky that slowly grew larger until it was over us for a split second and then becoming a speck in the other direction – and then the sound caught up to it! Several of us jumped, some of us ducked, and I can’t confirm but there might have been a new pair of underwear or two needed. And not necessarily for the boys. There were smiles, cheers, laughter, and a couple of screams of delight, also not necessarily from the boys. There were another several passes, complete with jumps and ducks by us before our friends in the F-18’s had to go. For the pilots, it was most likely just another day of training out over the range, but for Kaiden it was literally the thrill of a lifetime. We joked that we are forever ruined for any other air shows to come. They just won’t be able to stack up. As though that was not enough of a finale, the boys got to climb back into their air chariot for another helo ride back to base with an absolutely breathtaking stop on a mountain peak along the way.
After all of that excitement we were treated to a personalized lunch of Kaiden’s favorite foods, prepared and served by the Admiral’s chef followed by some time for the boys to try their hands at the flight simulator, work on their PQS homework, an introduction to night vision goggles, a personal tour of the equipment room and an up close and personal look at their very own jets. Well, personalized for them for a day anyway. On our way out the door, Mob had one last surprise for Kaiden. He handed Kaiden a GoPro HERO 3 camera and said a few of the guys had all contributed to get this for him. All of our jaws just dropped open at the generosity of this gift. Kaiden was so excited he could hardly even wait to get it opened up. He ended up putting this on his helmet when he went snowboarding in Lake Tahoe and had a blast with it.
Our next treat was that night when the wives of the instructors put together the most wonderful pot luck dinner for us. When Mob told us the wives had wanted to do something for us so they put together this meal, I had no idea. When we first walked into the auditorium on base, I lot of people, a lot of food, and then I caught my first glimpse of the boys on the mountaintop that day as a slideshow played on the projection screen…and I lost it. The only other tears I had shed up to this point were when the jets were flying over us on the range and it hit home that we were really here and he was really getting his wish. That was only a few though, and I managed to rein them in. This time I had to walk out. So while I’m in the hallway, tears streaming down my face, Allison, one of the kind hearted wives of one of the instructors came up and said “you must be Kaiden’s Mom” and offered a hug. We exchanged a few words, and I felt calmed down enough to go back in, until I actually walked back in. This time what I noticed was not the photos, but the family setting of it all. Instructors, wives and children were all gathered there just to hang out with Kaiden and the rest of us. It was very clear to me they had gone to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of time to make us feel welcome and at home, and it was very touching. So much so that I had to walk out – again. After receiving some more morale support in the hallway I was finally able to go in and actually join the party. Third time was the charm. We ate and chatted and let the kids run around and were welcomed into the TOPGUN family as Commander McLaughlin said a few words. Had I not been such an emotional wreck, I would have liked to have echoed with a few words of gratitude but I knew I didn’t dare try that night. Before long, it was time to call it a night again to get some much needed rest before our 0500 briefing back on base in the morning. Yes, 0500.
Day 3 – Friday, March 15 – Takeoffs
We all managed to roll ourselves out of bed and arrive on base on time for the 0500 briefing during which all of the students went through their instructions for the day’s activities. This was their final day of training and their final flight against the instructors before their graduation. Listening to them was a bit like listening to a foreign language, but we were excited to be a part of the experience anyway. After the briefing we got some much needed coffee while we waited to head out to the flight line to be able to watch them all take off.
Before heading out to the flight line, Mob took us out to watch the jets warm up. It was a rather surreal setting to see the sun coming up behind mountains amidst the smell of the jet fuel and the whir of the engines starting up as one by one they began lining up to take their place on the runway as they got ready to take off. This was the real deal, and we were going to get to watch. After a few pictures we headed out to the runway where Kaiden waved and saluted each of the pilots as they lined up to take off. I’m a bad judge of distance, so I won’t venture a guess at how close we were, but it was close enough that we felt it in our chests as they each poured the coals to it and took to the air. It was incredible. Kaiden just watched in awe and took it all in. Once all of them were up, we headed inside to see what was taking place on the ground side of the exercise. It was equally awe inspiring to see what all went into the effort behind that many aircraft flying at the same time. It was surprising to see the number of people it took on the ground to successfully manage an exercise of that size. Once our morning was over, it was time for some breakfast and a nap before the graduation ceremony, but before we headed out Mob gave Kaiden
Day 3 – Friday, March 15 – Graduation
We arrived back on base and got to hang out with some of the guys for a while before they all had to go change into their dress uniforms for the ceremony. All of the parents and family of the graduates were there and there was a buzz of anticipation. We were allowed to sit in on the final talk Commander McLaughlin gave to the class before the ceremony, and his words to them were inspiring even to us who had only been with them a short time. He spoke to them about the honor of being TOPGUN graduates and the tenets by which they were expected to live and portray to others in all they do. He told them stories of previous graduates and used words like honor and excellence, but the one that surprised me and stood out the most was humility. Having had a front row seat to the lives of these men and women, I can see where what they get to do could go to their heads. I mean, who else gets to go faster than the speed of sound on a regular basis? That, coupled with the erroneous portrayal of them in the movie as being arrogant and egotistical would probably lead most people to believe those things of them, but I can say from firsthand knowledge that nothing could be further from the truth. They are all the most down to earth, genuine, authentic individuals you could ever hope to meet. They live excellence with a quiet confidence that demonstrates their honor and integrity. The care they showed to Kaiden was a tribute to those qualities and personified who the true TOPGUN pilots are.
The graduation ceremony was held in a pit style auditorium with the stage below and seats in elevated semi-circle rows facing downward. I was anxious as we went in to the ceremony knowing I would not possibly be able to make it through the whole thing without crying, but not knowing what to expect or when it would hit me. We sat within the first few rows behind the rest of the graduates and Kaiden seemed excited to receive the coveted TOPGUN patch but did a good job of sitting still. After a few words of what the graduates had accomplished, they began to call each of them up to receive their certificate of accomplishment. Each of the pilots would receive their actual patch in a separate ceremony later that evening, but Kaiden and Evan would get theirs during this one. Once they were done handing out the certificates to the pilots, Commander McLaughlin jokingly said they were done and that was all there was to hand out. I thought Kaiden was going to jump up and say “Hey! You forgot us!”, but he used what I can only imagine was all of his self -control to remain patiently seated.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a long pause before he said there were two more certificates to hand out. Before he called them up to the stage, he recognized Kaiden and his family explaining the purpose of our trip and commended Kaiden for being an amazing, brave little boy. He proceeded to call Evan up and present him with his certificate and patch and we got to take photos, as each graduate had gotten to do. Finally it was Kaiden’s turn, and he half ran up to the stage to collect his most prized possession. As Commander McLaughlin presented him his patch and shook his hand, the entire auditorium gave Kaiden a standing ovation for what seemed like five straight minutes. Kaiden stood on the stage and beamed. He stared in awe, as did I, as all of the people who had gathered there applauded and cheered for him. It was the most amazing and joyful experience to see my little hero being honored by the rest of these heroes and their families. And of course – I lost it – again. Grandpa was standing next to me crying, and I could even hear some of the wives of the instructors whom we had met at the dinner the night before standing behind us handing each other tissues. It felt like he was finally being given the joy he deserved for having had to endure all of the pain and struggle he has had to over the past two and a half years. I’ve said this before; that to this day I don’t think Kaiden fully understands the magnitude of what he has fought and endured; which right now is a good thing, but I imagine at some point in his life he will. When he does, I hope he will look back at that moment and remember what he felt and understand why all of them were standing there applauding him the way they were and carry that feeling with him the rest of his life.
After some pictures with the boys and their newly obtained certificates, Mob came outside with a final gift he had for Kaiden. It was hard for us to believe there was anything else they could possibly give him, but one of the wives father’s had made Kaiden the most beautiful model and sent it from Florida to the base to give to Kaiden. Thankfully, Christina, a representative from Make A Wish who had attended the graduation offered to ship it to us so that we didn’t risk damaging it on the trip home. Just another demonstration of how far reaching the contributions were to this whole experience. After that, we headed over to the officer’s club for a bite to eat and some last good-byes before heading out to our hotel in Reno for the night. The next morning we would get up and hit the slopes in Lake Tahoe.
It was hard to believe we had only been there for two and a half days. By the time we left, we all felt as though we had become a part of a new family of friends and it was hard to leave it all behind so quickly.
Day 4 – Saturday, March 16 – Lake Tahoe
We were by no means in any hurry on Saturday morning. By the time we reached the hotel Friday night, we were all a little tired and were thankful the next morning would not call for us to be up at 4 or 5 a.m. We left the hotel by late morning, stopped for some breakfast and headed to Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe.
It was a beautiful day with sunshine and upper 40’s to low 50’s for temperatures. We couldn’t have asked for a better day for Kaiden to snowboard and us to explore the village within Squaw Valley. Evan’s parents and I had decided that since he had not snowboarded or skied before, this was probably not the place for him to try for the first time, so he hung out down on the ground with my Dad, Danielle and I while Patrick and Kaiden hit the slopes.
We enjoyed a day of checking out the village, taking a tram ride up to the top of the mountain, and for the girls – we took turns going for a massage in the spa. It was a wonderful day.
Day 5 – Sunday, March 17 – Back to Reality
We didn’t have to be to the airport until mid-day and thankfully got to our gate with time to spare and without incident. Kaiden and I were getting some last minute gift shop browsing in when my Dad came over and excitedly told us we had to get back to the gate – there was a surprise for Kaiden! I couldn’t possibly imagine what else there could be. My first thought was that Southwest had something for him again, but when we got back over to the gate, Commander McLaughlin was there. He was grabbing a flight out and it happened to be in the gate right next to ours. What are the odds? So, we got to say some final good-byes and off to our respective flights we went. Kaiden was so cute, he said, “Mom, why doesn’t he just take his jet?”
We got into Milwaukee a later than expected, and the limo was there to take us home. I can’t tell you how nice it was not to have to worry about driving back to Neenah… The next morning I let Kaiden sleep in a bit before shooing him off to school.
Since then, we’ve been absorbing our experience and sharing it with many. We still plan to do a show and tell gathering here, similar to what we did for the bon voyage party, as we have so many people who are excited to see the pictures and memorabilia from the trip. I’ll publish the date here once we’ve decided it for those in the area who want to come. Of course we would welcome any out of towners too!
I’ve uploaded a good portion of the pictures for you here.