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JBA pilots ‘celebrate the life’ of cancer survivor & Wingman

2.9 from 49 votes
Friday, March 09, 2018

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Jack Kirkbride lived for water balloon fights, monster trucks and Nerf blasters. But unlike other boys his age, he was reminded very early to live life to the fullest.

"Jack was diagnosed at age four with acute myeloid leukemia, a very rare disease," said Matt, Jack's father. "In October of 2016 he was given six months to live. His spleen and liver got really big – he had a hard time breathing – he was in a lot of pain."

Regardless of the pain, Jack had larger aspirations. His bucket list included practicing alongside Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and piloting a military plane. The latter wish happened last November when Jack was honored as a "Pilot for a Day" at Joint Base Andrews. Jack's final wish would happen Feb. 17.

"Jack didn't want to die in a hospital – and we made that wish come true. He was on a lot of pain medicine but you couldn't tell he had leukemia. He was '6 going on 26,' a boy who lived a lot of life," Matt added.

On March 4, hundreds from across the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area gathered at Lake Presidential Golf Club in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, for a "celebration of life" service in honor of Jack. Attendees included representatives from the military, medical, civic and religious communities.

"Jack's death represents the hardest part of our job," said George Onyenyeonwu, Check-6 Foundation vice-president. The nonprofit has provided "aid, assistance, experiences, purpose, inspiration and hope" to children like Jack across the U.S. and also leads JBA's "Pilot for a Day" program.

"There's a famous quote that says 'the measure of a person's life is not in years but the impact they've had on peoples lives,'" added Lt. Colonel Rob Balzano, a District of Columbia Air National Guard pilot and founder of the Check-6 Foundation. "It's a sad loss, but the impact Jack's heroism has on other kids and families remains."

Jack's tenacious spirit was particularly important for Staff Sgt. Zachary Pirrung, who is assigned to the Air Force District of Washington. Pirrung's son, Houston was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in July 2016. Houston and Jack befriended each other while undergoing leukemia treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital and were dubbed "kid warriors" and "battle buddies" fighting cancer together.

"The bond they had stemmed from the pain and adversity that came with cancer," said Pirrung. "They inspired me as a grown man to understand how short life really is and to inspire to be a better person."

Sentiments seconded by Capt. Kip Smith, a member of Joint Base Andrews 201st Airlift Squadron, who served as Jack's "Wingman for Life" – a mentor and big brother – who began shadowing Jack last fall.

"The optimism and positivity Jack had in the face of so much adversity is something that I'll never forget. So many people were drawn to that," he said.

Smith would present Jack's father with a fighter pilot helmet signed by pilots assigned to JBA. Some pilots called Jack a "hero," others commended of his unwavering "faith" and "perseverance."

The comments struck an emotional chord with Jack's father who said, "We're all on this Earth for a short amount of time – get involved with organizations like the Check-6 Foundation and others because you never know what tomorrow might bring."

Started in 2006, the nonprofit's mission is to "provide aid, assistance, experiences, purpose, inspiration and hope to children battling serious medical conditions and military veterans in need." The nonprofit's name, "Check-6," is reflective of a military aviator's practice of checking his wingman's 6 o'clock position, directly behind him, to ensure it is clear of any threat, he said.

In addition to the daylong title, recipients also receive a "Wingman for a lifetime," an active duty, reservist or National Guard member who will serve as a combination of mentor, coach and big brother (or sister).

"I can't change what is happening in any child's life, but I can change the memories that they have and the memories that they're going to carry on. That's what 'Pilot for a Day' is all about — good memories to overshadow all of the negative hurdles they've faced," Balzano added.

In November, as "Pilots for a Day," Houston and Jack donned personalized flight suits and took an oath to "promise to ask questions, smile a lot, and have as much fun as military regulations allow." The oath was administered by Maj. Gen. James A. Jacobson, Air Force District of Washington commander. During the opening ceremony, Jacobson also promoted the battle buddies to the rank of Lieutenant General, allowing them to become "the highest ranking people on Joint Base Andrews," and placed three stars on their collars.

As honorary pilots and sworn lieutenant generals, Houston and Jack obviously had a packed schedule; they toured multiple aircraft (UH-1N Huey helicopter, KC-135 Stratotanker, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and MD State Police helicopter) and even were afforded the opportunity to not only dine but also co-pilot a Boeing C-40 taxi on the runway. Additionally, they also interacted closely with the men and women who support National Capital Region contingency response capabilities critical to national security.

"They've been through a lot so opening up our hangars to them is the least that we can do — they really are an inspiration to us," said Maj. Eric Riethman, a pilot within the 11th Wing at Joint Base Andrews.

"My boys love jets and cars — I told my son, 'you've been through a lot but this is a little reward for you to enjoy and disengage from everything that you've had to go through,'" Kirkbride added.

To learn more about 'Pilot for a Day' and the Check-6 Foundation visit

Arthur Mondale

Source: DC Military
2.9 from 49 votes
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