News: For the love of Lyla: NATC-A members strive to inspire cancer patients
Story by Vladimir Potapenko
KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Arthur Barad, a C-27 NATO Air Training Command – Afghanistan advisor with the 440th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a strong man—barrel-chested, he can bench-press over 300 hundred pounds. But after sheering hair for the past two hours, he is tired; his voice is strained and devoid of its usual cheerfulness.
“I can’t believe this many people…I expected 20 at the most, but we have 50, 60,” he says as he takes a nice sized chunk of hair from another scalp.
A few more floating strands of hair find refuge on his military-issue beige undershirt. He does not brush them away, or the 50 other kinds of hair housed by his shirt, for that matter. Instead, he wears them like he would medals on a more formal uniform.
“It makes me feel really good…it makes me feel proud that all these guys stepped up to do all this. It was from a friend of a friend and a girl that nobody has ever met,” says Barad.
What Barad is proud of is that more than 60 service members—soldiers, sailors, airmen and coalition partners—assigned to NATC-A chose to shave their heads as a symbol of solidarity for 5-year-old Lyla Grace Rivers of Vermont. Diagnosed in August with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells characterized by excess lymphoblast, Lyla lost all of her hair due to the chemotherapy she receives as part of her treatment.
It all starts with an idea
A week ago, Brad Paro, a civilian contractor working on the C-27 team of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, came into work at the Afghan Air Force Base in Kabul, Afghanistan with the idea of shaving his head.
Pardo had just found out that the daughter of his high school friend Kelley Rivers had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and he was looking for a way to raise the young girl’s spirits considering the fact that she had just lost her hair due to chemo treatments.
“I just said that I was going to shave my head, that’s all I said,” said Paro. “A couple of guys heard it, I never asked them anything, and they said ‘we’ll do it with you. ‘”
Paro says he was just looking to show Lyla that she was not alone in her fight, that she had support. He was hoping for a simple photo in front of a C-27. But what started out as a small project turned into something greater than he could have ever expected.
“At first we had about eight people, and then I sent out an email and got about 20 more people and then I sent pictures of Lyla—she’s five years old and adorable—and once I sent her face out there we got countless more [responses],” said Barad
And within a day, what had started out as eight people had turned into more than 60, with not only troops working on the AAF Base in Kabul taking part, but also five service members at the AAF Base in Shindand.
To accommodate all of the responses, Barad organized a “shaving party” at barracks 504 at Kabul International Airport. Together with U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Pete Tascione, a C-27 NATC-A maintenance advisor with the 440th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, Barad spent over two hours giving anyone willing a haircut strikingly similar to the one he himself was sporting.
For those who were on hand to shave their heads, the experience meant more than just their individual effort.
“It makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Vaughn, the NATC-A director of logistics for the 438th AEW. “I am doing this for the little girl, but my mom is also a cancer survivor, so this is for Lyla, but it is also for all of the other people who go through it.”
While they were being given a haircut, participants were given an opportunity to record a message to Lyla. As U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Darryl Guppy kneeled with camera in hand, many mumbled looking for the right words; many repeated a common sentiment:
“Hi Lyla, I showed your picture around to a bunch of my friends and they thought you were so beautiful that they got jealous, so we all decided to cut our hair like you,” said Paro.
“I just like to shave people’s heads,” said Tascione when asked why he was taking part in the event.
“It’s just a small thing to do to raise people’s spirit,” he continued after a short pause to laugh at his own joke. “And I’ll shave a head or my hair any day of the week. With my son having cancer, too, I know what it is like to go through this as a family member. Every day it just makes you appreciative of what you have versus what you don’t have.”
Tascione’s son, Caleb, was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma when he was four years old. Today, Caleb is a five year cancer survivor.
Whether it was a mother, a brother or son, many guests at the “shaving party” had a personal experience with cancer. For Betsy Riley, a civilian contractor working with the C-27 program of the 438th AEW, that personal experience meant her own battle with breast cancer.
“It’s just hair,” Riley said as she sat into the makeshift barber’s chair.
Yes, but it was her hair. Long and brunette, it was over 10 inches long, and easily triple the length of any other participants hair [with all of them being men]. It was a personal victory as a ten-year cancer survivor. But it was also nothing compared to the opportunity she now had to inspire a little girl.
“It’s only hair, it grows back,” she repeated.
And as she sat gently sobbing, both Barad and Tascione went to work cutting her hair. Wet and ponytailed, she had wanted to make it as easy as possible to cut. All of the people filling the cramped room, a lounge on the second floor of the barracks, cheered and offered encouragement as they looked on. They all understood her gesture.
First, Barad cut the ponytail. Holding it in one hand, he cut through the thick band of hair with the difficulty of bone—he struggled, he labored. When he was done, he handed it to Riley as the audience clapped. With the hard part done, Barad and Tascione both began to sheer away her hair, taking even greater care in their effort.
Clean shaven, Riley rose out of her chair, wiped the tears from her eyes and walked over to hug her friend who was on hand to support her.
“You’re beautiful with or without hair,” said Riley, directing her comment to Lyla.
“There is so much love here in this room...” she continued as she rolled her head back and shifted her eyes towards the ceiling, hoping gravity could do what her body was unable. “Never stop hoping, never stop dreaming.”
“I would do this again in a heartbeat. It’s only hair,” she repeated.
A symbol for everyone
When Barad began asking for volunteers, he also asked if anyone had a similar issue that they were championing. That day, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Roel Martinez-Lopez asked is something could also be done for the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a pediatric treatment and research facility focused on children's catastrophic diseases, which he was involved with. Seeing the correlation between the two causes, Barad and the other NATC-A personnel involved with the “shaving party” decided that as they were taping messages for Lyla they would do the same for the children of St. Jude’s.
Similarly, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chad McCollum saw the drive and support shown for Lyla as an opportunity to inform troops about the benefits of donating bone marrow. Having been a donor to a man with leukemia in the past, McCollum knew how donating bone marrow could save a life. So, as the rush to shave heads was in progress, McCollum petitioned service members to put their name on the registry for the C.W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Program as well, with over 50 troops doing so.
“It’s all heartfelt. It feels good to know I work in a wing that has people like this, with the hearts that they have,” said Barad.
Finally, a photo-op
With everyone’s hair buzzed, many of the volunteers assembled on the flight line of the AAF Base to take a group photo in front of a C-27 with Lyla’s portrait painted on it. The plan was to send the photo to her and the children of St. Jude’s, and with their fresh, pale scalps baking in the sun, everyone smiled. Everyone understood how over the span of a few days, the realities and difficulties of life outside war brought service members together with the hope of inspiring others.
“You men and women are over here teaching and instilling our customs and values to the Afghan community, and what better example is there of who we are as a people than this here today,” said Paro.
“I am proud to stand here today and thank all of you for what you have done for Lyla and all of the kids at St. Jude. God bless each and every one of you. Thank you.”