Young cancer patient fulfills dream as ‘Airman for a Day’

Young cancer patient fulfills dream as ‘Airman for a Day’

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Teenage warrior Michelle McConnell has battled bone cancer and amputation with a strength and tenacity that left no doubt among her family or the U.S. Air Force that she was tough enough to become a combat-trained “Airman for a Day.”

When the 15-year-old made the formal request through Make-A-Wish Utah, Hill Air Force Base enthusiastically mobilized to turn the dream into reality, providing Michelle and her family an unforgettable afternoon of military training, leadership and excitement.

Michelle said her desire stemmed from participating in a prior “Pilot for A Day” program on base, as well as from her admiration for those who wear the uniform.

“The Air Force is really cool and I think it’s awesome the way the military works together to protect everyone in our country,” she explained. “I was shocked and amazingly excited when I found out that my Air Force wish was going to be granted.”

The day’s itinerary began when Michelle’s limousine arrived at 75th Air Base Wing Headquarters where she was issued a personalized camouflage Air Battle Uniform and enjoyed pizza, root beer, birthday cake and gifts with her family and senior Air Force leaders.

After lunch, Michelle visited Hill AFB’s Fire Station 4 where she met firefighters, toured the facility, and received training on how to respond to structural fires. Michelle was fitted with a protective suit, gloves, and helmet before traveling by firetruck, sirens-blaring, to help douse the flames of a controlled training blaze.

“We were beyond honored when we found out Michelle wanted to spend some time with us,” said Tiana Bykowski, Hill AFB Fire Department public information and education officer. “When she arrived, she seemed quiet and shy. By the end of our time with her, she was laughing and joking just like one of us, and she stepped up and fought the structural fire as if she had been doing it for years.”

Next on the agenda, Michelle visited the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team where she learned about the critical role EOD technicians play in keeping warfighters safe at home and abroad. She and her family traveled by Humvee caravan to the unit’s proficiency range where Michelle impressed spectators with her skills in operating one of the robots used in high-tech ordnance disposal. Michelle also had the opportunity to use her command voice to issue safety instructions and initiate two controlled detonations.

Michelle’s afternoon also included a visit to the 75th Security Forces Squadron, where she was invited to ride along in a patrol car during a routine traffic stop. At each location, Michelle earned a coveted unit coin for her courage and determination. During the last stop of the day, Team Hill’s Honor Guard conducted a flag-folding ceremony and presented Michelle a flag flown in her honor over the state capitol building. She also received her final coin of the day from Col. Jon Eberlan, 75th Air Base Wing commander.

Michelle’s mother Andrea McConnell said her daughter feels a strong connection to the military and first responders because she understands “what they must feel in terms of working to save lives.”

Andrea said she was overwhelmed with gratitude for the outpouring of support from the different agencies on base.

“It makes your heart sing to watch your child take in every single moment of an experience like this,” she said. “There are no words to explain how courageous she is and we pray she can take this strength and help others to dig deep.”

Make-A-Wish Utah wish coordinator Christina Wright also expressed her gratitude, explaining that research shows children who have wishes granted build the emotional and physical strength necessary to fight critical illnesses.

“Michelle has been looking forward to her wish for a very long time, and seeing the community come together for a local child has been inspiring,” Wright said. “Hill Air Force Base took Michelle’s idea and created a magical day that is going to give her the grit to keep fighting. For that, Make-A-Wish Utah is forever grateful.”

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