COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The man in camouflage shopped for potato chips at the grocery store in a chill, low-key way, as though he were a regular person — and not one of Evan’s toy soldiers come to life.
Probably he’d come from Fort Jackson, the nearby Army Training Center in this capital city.
Evan’s mom, Rachel, who’d worked for a time at a veteran’s hospital, had raised him to see soldiers as heroes.
Why else would she buy them meals at restaurants, sneaky-like, so they wouldn’t know it was her?
It’s one of Evan’s most enduring memories from before cancer: Him clutching his mom’s hand, pointing to soldiers with his other hand. And not being able to resist yelling out:
“Mom, Army guys! Army guys! Army guys!”
Rachel would have preferred to cry in peace and not make such a nuisance of herself. She would have liked to have dug a hole and crawled inside. But on the airplane from Memphis to Charlotte, North Carolina, in January 2009, there was nowhere to go, and the tears wouldn’t stop.
It wound up being a lucky thing.
The day before, her 5-year-old son Evan, sick with brain cancer, had handed her a clump of his hair.
Today she was flying away from him.
She was going home to Columbia to be with her other three boys who hadn’t seen their mom in weeks. But the short trip meant leaving Evan behind with his dad, Alex, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Evan had started treatment for a brain tumor called medulloblastoma. His thick brown hair had been falling out, and the radiation therapy had made food taste weird. She and her husband were doctors, but they couldn’t fix their little boy. Lord knows, if she could have scooped the tumor out herself, she would have done it, in a heartbeat, as they say.
Instead they’d placed their trust in St. Jude.
The back of the plane felt too crowded, too close, too warm, even sickening, so a kindhearted airline employee moved her to the front, next to a woman who said hello.
“We started to take off, and I just started sobbing on the plane. …and I had my head down.
“And this sweet lady (next to me) said, ‘Can I help you? What’s wrong?’”
That woman was Brenda Bowen of Leavenworth, Kansas.
Maybe a silent communique had already passed between them, the shared recognition of their mother’s bond.
“I lost a daughter in 1983 to a car wreck,” said Brenda, “and you just couldn’t help from wanting to help her.”
So they talked for the entire flight.
And when Rachel found out Brenda worked as a civilian employee at the Fort Leavenworth Army installation in Kansas, she told her how Evan, her little boy with cancer, had always loved “Army guys” and soldiers in camouflage.
Brenda had a light bulb: What if she could get some real-life Army people to send messages to Evan on his webpage? She thought she could.
“And so this compassionate woman took pity on this crazy lady sitting next to her on the plane,” said Rachel, “and started this whole thing.”
Hi, Evan! I’m Colonel Bob Burns at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I heard you think “Soldiers are pretty cool.” Well, I like them, too. I’ve told some of my friends about you, and we think you’re a pretty amazing little guy. Get well soon!
It didn’t take long for the story to reach Millington, Tennessee, the closest Army recruitment headquarters to St. Jude.
Terrance Wright, the Station Commander of the U.S. Army Career Center there in Millington picked up the phone when it rang. A sick little boy at St. Jude wanted to meet some Army soldiers.
Make it happen, could you?
“I was doing my job, to be honest. That’s part of recruiting, right, to get out into the community? I’m like, ‘OK, let me go meet this kid. He wants to see a soldier, and I hope it makes him feel better.’ That was kind of my mindset going there.”
Terrance gathered two other recruiters, and they went to St. Jude and met with Evan and his family. A few days later, they came back to have lunch. Soon Terrance was coming all by himself, whether or not the other guys tagged along.
He still asks himself why. But it may have had something to do with being a new dad.
Terrance’s baby girl was born in 2009, that same year Evan was sick. As a newborn, she was so fragile, and he would do anything to protect her. It got Terrance thinking about life and death things.
He bonded with Rachel, who “is so sweet, it’s unreal,” in a way he might not have at another time in his life.
“I just had a soft spot to hear that they were actual doctors and couldn’t help their son. It was pretty devastating for them. Something about that really stood out to me. It was just their humility.”
And Evan was like a whirlwind: active, giggly, silly, everywhere-at-once. Never met a corny joke or prank he didn’t like.
“Lit!” said Terrance. “He was lit.
“He did not slow down. He had energy for days.”
And then it would hit Terrance: This little boy is very sick. “You know, at that time was kind of dying, to be honest.”
And it would also hit Terrance: Just my being here makes it better.
“I think it was inspiring for him. I think it helped him get through his process from a mental standpoint. I’m sure it helped his parents.”
Something profound was happening, and not just to him.
I am an Air Force F-16 fighter pilot currently serving at Fort Leavenworth. I just wanted let you know that your story has spread across both the Army and the Air Force! You're famous! We're all pulling for you and admire your courage very much. Take care of yourself and get well soon.
From Columbia, the South Carolina capital, where the Saluda and Broad rivers meet to form the Congaree; to the Mississippi River city of Memphis, home to St. Jude; to dots on the map across the U.S. and around the world, wherever people in the military serve — the story of the sick little boy who loved soldiers spread.
Evan’s supporters logged on and left words of encouragement.
Soldiers sent him badges and pins, Purple Hearts and coins, uniforms and flags that had flown in Afghanistan.
He was named an honorary Army colonel. He took to wearing his camo to St. Jude appointments.
The soldiers helped Evan tackle some of the harder aspects of treatment, letting him know that whatever he perceived as a difficulty, they perceived as a strength. Evan didn’t like going bald? No big loss, said one Marine:
I hear that we have something in common — Marines are tough just like you. We also share the bald look — I tell people that it cuts down on wind resistance so we can move really fast.
Younger soldiers wrote to him about their kids.
Retired soldiers shared stories of what military life used to be like, describing canned peach “C” rations and tough battles in past wars that had somehow all turned out OK.
It would for him, too, they told him.
Rachel read the messages aloud to Evan at bedtime, between appointments, at breakfast, on car rides. Sometimes she recognized a general’s name from having seen them in the paper or the Sunday political shows, and she would explain to Evan who it was.
When Evan lost his appetite and started losing weight and Rachel wrote about it on the webpage, the messages urged him to eat his food to be “Army strong.”
Hey Trooper, how's the fight going? You are an absolutely tremendous young man, and we're counting on you. I heard that you think the MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) is pretty cool. Go ahead and try it, and if you like it, we'll get you some more. The most important thing is that you eat to stay Strong and take care of your Mom. That's your job, Soldier!
Thus ordered, Evan did what they told him to do: He ate.
“It changed his course, really,” said Rachel. “Many kids on Evan’s treatment plan had such a hard time eating, they’d go on liquid nutrition through a central line.”
But Evan didn’t need it because people from all over the world were encouraging him to eat to be Army Strong.
Because he wasn’t tied to an IV, he could go on the riverboat or to the Children’s Museum of Memphis. Really get outside.
He got to go see Terrance and the guys in Millington. He visited other bases throughout the United States.
“I think to have that type of energy, to be happy, and to not know what’s going on with you. I think it just really inspired people to kind of look at their own lives, right, and say, ‘I’m complaining about this, that, and the third, and meanwhile this kid is living his life,’” said Terrance.
Hello from Iraq! I just wanted to let you know that the 55th Fighter Squadron is praying for a swift "return to duty" for you, and that we are proud to fly for you! We are an F-16 squadron deployed from Shaw AFB in Sumter, currently supporting the War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and we are honored that you would consider joining our ranks as a fighter pilot!
“It’s been eye opening,” said Evan, who is 18 now and more than 10 years cancer free. “It’s let me know that the world is much bigger than myself, and even through hard times, there’s always going to be people out there who you might not even know who will support you, even to the end.”
His battle buddies.
He remembers Ryan Pitts, the paratrooper from Walter Reed Medical Center who’d been wounded in Afghanistan in the Battle of Wanat. He’d heard about Evan through Leta Carruth, a troop supporter, and had come to visit Evan at St. Jude.
To Evan’s mind, Ryan had seemed like one of those adults who was more like a kid. They played with a fart machine and had lots of laughs. Perfect for a 6-year-old boy. Rachel has called him a “gift from God.”
“I remember his messages would come in, and they would send little badges,” said Evan, “and I was like, ‘These people really support me,’ and that encouraged me to keep moving forward.”
Ryan never forgot Evan either.
In 2014, Staff Sgt. Ryan M. Pitts received the Medal of Honor for the way he’d looked after his fellow soldiers during the Battle of Wanat. He invited Evan to the presentation ceremony at the Pentagon.
I am a cancer survivor and a Soldier in the Army. I want you to know how proud I am of you. I know that radiation and chemo are tough but it will help you get better. Stay Army Strong!!!
It was Evan’s high school graduation day on May 22, and the sun shined full bore. People fanned themselves and took draughts from their water bottles. They could have used a tent, but maybe that, too, was verboten in these in-between times — too much like an indoor structure, too easy to spread germs.
So they suffered through it, beans on the skillet, the high school graduates and their families, sizzling in the high 80s heat.
Evan sweat in all those layers, and still it was worth it, to file across the stage with his classmates and accept his diploma with high honors.
It was worth it.
“Some moments in life take your breath away, and this is one of them,” said Rachel.
Brenda Bowen, the friendly stranger, now friend who had comforted Rachel years ago on the plane, had picked out the best high school graduation card she could for Evan and sent it to him in the mail.
“I think when my daughter passed away… I always saw the good, but it was harder.”
Until she met Rachel and Evan and became connected to a kindness bigger than any of them.
“I just wrote him a little note and told him he’s got great things ahead of him,” said Brenda. “He’s going to change the world. He’s changed mine. He’s been a blessing for me.
“I see the good, and I know God’s there.”
Terrance couldn’t be at graduation because he’d gotten COVID-19, so he sat in his bedroom, not too bad sick, thank goodness, and watched the livestream.
“He really made it,” Terrance thought with pride.
Terrance left the Army in 2013 but he still does recruiting, only now for a company instead of Uncle Sam.
He’s closer to Evan’s family than ever.
“I’ve been to their house probably God knows how many times. I’ve flown down to South Carolina and hung out with them, and we went out to eat and had a good time. I’ve literally spent the night in their house.
“Not to put race as a factor, but I’m African American, and they’re all of Caucasian and Spanish descent, and they basically welcomed me in like I’m their family.”
On a phone call a few days later, Evan talks about that.
“Terrance is family,” Evan said.
Evan will attend Wofford College this fall, a small liberal arts school in Spartanburg, where he plans to study psychology.
So here’s a quiz question for this student of behavior: Why did they do it? All those men and women of the military? Why did they rally around him?
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” said Evan. “I don’t know. It’s something I’ve questioned, but I’ve never really found out the solution to that.”
Rachel calls out from somewhere beyond the cell phone receiver: “It’s because you’re an awesome guy, that’s why!”
And though he never wanted to be known as the “cancer kid,” he’s always been grateful to St. Jude.
“I would love to go back and share my experience with people and give them hope that helps them say, ‘You can overcome it.’”
Just like the soldiers did for him.