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Rachel Pertile, mother of 6-year-old St. Jude patient Evan, has long had compassion and respect for the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As a physician, Rachel once worked at a veteran’s hospital, and she knew firsthand about the sacrifices of these soldiers. She showed her gratitude in small ways. Sometimes, if she saw a group of soldiers at a restaurant, she would quietly pay for their meal, hoping that her gesture would represent the many Americans who respected their commitment.
Brenda Bowen knew none of this when a weeping Rachel sat in the seat next to her on a flight from Memphis. Brenda’s own compassionate heart compelled her to ask the stranger if she was OK or if there was anything she could help with.
In Rachel’s despair, she opened up to her seatmate. Rachel told Brenda of her young son Evan, battling a brain tumor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Evan had undergone surgery and radiation treatments to combat the tumor. As a result of the treatment, his hair had begun falling out and he had stopped eating.
Rachel was flying back home to spend a few precious days with her other three children, whom she had not seen in more than a month. And though her husband, Alex, would stay in Memphis to care for Evan, being away from her son at this critical time was very difficult, and the emotion of leaving him was taking its toll.
Brenda understood. The two formed an immediate bond and during their conversation, Brenda mentioned that she worked at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Rachel told her that Evan loved soldiers, whom he called “Army guys.” The flight ended, they exchanged contact information and said goodbye.
Though Brenda knew she could not cure Evan, she knew there was something she could do that might bring a smile to his face. When she returned to Fort Leavenworth, Brenda began spreading Evan’s story, asking the soldiers to write the little boy who loved “Army guys.” Brenda said she contacted a number of high-ranking officials and they, in turn, spread the word about Evan.
“Everyone has something they can do,” Brenda said. “And people are willing to help. All it takes is for one person to tell another.”
And one person telling another was all it took, as military men and women of all ranks and branches around the world began sending Evan messages of goodwill.
“Evan was over the moon,” Rachel said. "I had no idea of all that Brenda would do or the ball that she would start rolling. Within 24 hours, members of the military started writing to Evan. This was all because of her.”
The messages from the military to the family are poignant. Some talk candidly with Evan about the challenges they’ve faced as soldiers, assuring Evan that he, too, has the strength to overcome obstacles and that he can win his battle.
Many urged Evan to resume eating again, so he can be “Army Strong.” And he did, forcing himself to eat, even though he did not feel up to it.
Some of the messages Evan received, such as one from Colonel Bob Burns, director for the Center of Army Tactics at Fort Leavenworth, talk about the inspiration Evan has given the military.
Burns told Evan, “Thanks for helping us be tough and reminding us what's really important in life. Glad you're home. Have lots of fun. We're still thinking of you. Be ARMY STRONG!”
Evan has even been made an honorary colonel by Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commanding general of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth.
Rachel said that Evan has even begun telling her, “You’re strong, but I’m Army Strong.”
When she asks him what that means, he tells her “It’s because I’m a warrior against cancer.”
All of this is thanks to a chance meeting aboard an airplane and Brenda’s determination to make a difference.
On May 20, 2009, Brenda was finally able to meet the little boy whose life she profoundly affected. While Evan and his family were in Memphis for procedures, Brenda made a special surprise visit to St. Jude to see them.
Rachel, Evan and his father, Alex, were in the atrium of the Danny Thomas Research Center, chatting with a videographer about their story. She had just finished talking about meeting Brenda on the airplane, when Brenda walked up and touched Rachel on her back.
“Oh my goodness!” Rachel exclaimed. “Did you just hear me talking about you?” she asked Brenda. The two embraced before Rachel quickly pulled Brenda over to meet Evan.
“Do you know who this is?” she excitedly asked Evan. “This is Brenda. She’s the one who started all of this.”
It was then that Evan quickly stepped up on the couch he had been playing in front of, and stretched over to give Brenda a big hug. Brenda hugged him back.
“You are such a handsome boy,” she told him as she sat and played with the little boy.
After finally spending time with Evan, Brenda reflected on the events that culminated in this moment.
“It humbles me to see this,” she said about the outpouring of affection for Evan. “It makes you see how good people really are. And I am very glad I have been able to help.”
The Pertile family continues to receive encouragement from the military and individuals as their story travels around the world. The family has been thrilled to hear from so many friends who express their hopes and support for Evan. On August 13, Rachel and Evan had the opportunity to meet many of those supporters when they attended the 65th annual AMVETS National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. There, the Pertiles shared their St. Jude experience with the 1,000 attendees and thanked them for their dedication to Evan and St. Jude.
You, too, can help. St. Jude founder Danny Thomas often said “I’d rather have a million people give me a dollar than one give me a million. Then you’ve got a million people involved.” Evan’s story exemplifies this statement—because the more people who support the St. Jude mission of hope and caring, the more children will win their fight against childhood cancer and other catastrophic illnesses. Please help children like Evan by spreading the St. Jude message of hope.