11/20/05 — Airmen help makes dreams come true

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Airmen help makes dreams come true

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 20, 2005 2:07 AM

Leslie Watkins sat patiently at the visitors' center at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday morning between her two very excited sons, Joseph, 6, and Joshua, 11.

Neither child appeared to be anything but a rough and tumble boy.

"Joseph is the 'wish kid,'" Mrs. Watkins said.

The 6-year-old was part of a group of six children and their families who were invited to spend Friday at the base as part of the Make A Wish Foundation's program for seriously ill children.

Military personnel were matched with the youths during activities that ranged from touring the F-15E Strike Eagle simulator, trying on the equipment worn by fighter pilots and touring the radar approach control facility and the air traffic control tower.

The Watkins family now lives in Reedy Creek, a tiny offshoot near Cary. They moved to North Carolina from Arizona in June.

Joseph was diagnosed with muscular cancer in April 2004, his mother said. He had just turned 5.

Ten months of treatment followed, including daily radiation sessions for five weeks, she said. The last treatment was done in February, with regular check-ups every three months now.

She and her husband also have two older sons, ages 15 and 13. One of the hardest parts of having a family member with an acute illness is the added toll it takes having to be away from home to care for him, Mrs. Watkins said.

The rest of the family has managed to be understanding, though, she said. Make A Wish typically incorporates siblings for the fun events, like when the family went to Disney World, she said.

"When you have go to through so much bad stuff, it kind of evens it out to have some good things happen," she said while watching her youngest sons scrambling to climb into the open cockpit of a plane. "It's just so exciting to be able to have them see new things that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise. It kind of evens out some of the crap they have gone through."

Joseph, in spite of a scar that covers much of his right leg, wasn't worrying about his health Friday. There was just too much to see, and he wasn't letting anything slow him down.

"He's fabulous. He really is," his mother said. "His spirits are always really high."

Supportive people and a strong faith system have carried them through thus far, she said.

"He asked one time if he was going to die," she said. "We told him, if you do, you live with Jesus; if you don't, you live with us. He just took it very matter of fact after that."

Sheri Ezzell and her husband, Larry, of Fuquay-Varina, have two children who have benefited from the Make A Wish program. Aaron Lentz, 10, and Kylie Ezzell, 3, have neurofibromatosis, a tumor-based ailment that affects the nerves. Kylie was diagnosed with the disease at 8 months, after breaking her leg; Aaron's diagnosis came a year ago.

Mrs. Ezzell said she knew any children she produced had a 50-50 chance of being affected, since it is a genetic disease, and she is a carrier. Her son has tumors on his spine and requires a wheelchair to go long distances. Kylie has undergone six surgeries and has rods in her leg as a result.

Make a Wish has already sent the family to the circus and is making arrangements to grant Kylie's wish to go to Disney World in March, Mrs. Ezzell said.

The parents took turns watching their children's expressions and taking pictures. Aaron said he looked most forward to seeing the simulator and commented that his sister also loves airplanes.

"She keeps asking if we're at the airport yet," he said.

First stop on the base tour was the 333rd Fighter Squadron, where the commander, Lt. Col. Mark "Grace" Kelly welcomed the families.

"You are the most important thing we've got going today," he said. "This is your day; we just happen to be here at the same time."

Capt. Chris Torres took the reins for the event, having initiated contact with Make A Wish after the base successfully played host to another recipient last year.

"Every quarter our squadron does a service project," he said, citing previous efforts with Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels.

"It's great to be able to do something like this. There's obviously a lot of work that goes into this. Other squadrons, area businesses, everybody on base has come together to be able to do this. Now you see this, and it's all worth it."

Children and the officer they were paired with on Friday included: Joseph Watkins and Capt. "Toga" Frank; Kylie Ezzell and Lt. Heron Weider; Aaron Lentz and Capt. Torres; Andrew Tibbetts and Lt. Ryan Sanford; Colton Butcher and Capt. Lewis Collins; and Caton Dell and Lt. Nick Smith.