NEWS | April 25, 2018

Cancer survivor becomes 'Airman for a Day'

By Airman 1st Class Allison Payne Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Team Charleston hosted an Airman for a Day event here April 12, 2018. The event was held for Jessica Rye, 17-year-old cancer survivor, to recognize her resiliency during her battle with cancer. Jessica’s brother, Jacob Rye, accompanied her during the visit.

The two were greeted at the visitor’s center and escorted to the 16th Airlift Squadron, where Jessica was given her own flight suit, personalized with her name and Joint Base Charleston patches. The siblings were then taken on a base tour.

“We have the Airman for a Day event to reach out to individuals with an interest in the Air Force,” said Capt. Alisha Strobel, 16th Airlift Squadron chief of commander’s support staff. “Jessica has always wanted to come to the base and experience what it’s like to be an Airman, so we were really excited to show her. As an aviator, I don’t get to interact with the public very often, so having a day with this honorary Airman and experiencing what she saw through her eyes was extraordinary.”

During the fall of 2017, a lump appeared on Jessica’s neck, which caused her to visit a Medcare Express. The doctor thought something didn’t look right and ordered several tests. Jessica had the lump surgically removed within the week and later found it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer which most often starts in lymph nodes in the upper body. Jessica endured six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation therapy as treatment. She has been clear of cancer for nearly a year.

“My mom had to take off work and stayed by my side the whole time,” said Jessica. “I remember having dance parties with her and singing in the hospital hallways to pass the time. My dad always visited me before he went to work and brought me whatever kind of food I wanted that day. My brother and his friends kept me company and played games with me to keep my mind off things and my grandparents also made sure to visit me. My family was very supportive of me and has been from the beginning of all this.”

Jessica was provided the opportunity to visit the base through the Courageous Kidz program, a safe haven for children with cancer. Deborah “Flash” Stephson, the founder and director of Courageous Kidz, said she was really excited for Jessica and Jacob to experience the Air Force lifestyle.

“I believe Courageous Kidz builds confidence and teaches children about our service members and what they do for us,” said Stephson. “It teaches children about patriotism and I believe the world today doesn’t fully realize how much our military members do for the country. I think it’s important for people to learn about these things.”

The siblings were able to try on EOD bomb suits, practice controlling EOD robots, view a demonstration from military working dogs, operate the hose on a firetruck, sit in the pilot and co-pilot seats of a C-17 Globemaster III and more.

“My favorite part of the day was definitely the military working dogs because I’m a huge dog person,” said Jessica. “Overall, I had a great time and it was really cool to be able to see behind-the-scenes. My brother and I are thankful to Courageous Kidz, as well as the Air Force for this amazing opportunity.”

Jacob describes Jessica as an all-around positive person with an uplifting attitude. He said even though times were hard for him and his family, Jessica’s positivity helped him push through the difficult year.

“I’m really grateful for my sister always keeping my spirits up,” said Jacob. “It has been a tough year but Jessica is even tougher. It’s important in life to keep a positive attitude and to keep pushing through. Keep living your life like there’s no tomorrow and appreciate your friends and family.”

At the end of the tour, Jessica met with Team Charleston leadership to discuss her experience. She also received coins from leadership with many thanks for visiting.

“I think everybody on base benefitted from meeting Jessica,” said Strobel. “She took us out of our day-to-day jobs. When we’re able to interact with someone so captivated by what we do it brings us back to why we started in the first place. I think it’s important to step back from our jobs and remember what brought us here and she was able to do that with everyone she met. She reminded me why I became a pilot and I really hope to interact with more Courageous Kidz in the future.”