For the love of Lyla - NATC-A members strive to inspire cancer patient

  • Published
  • By Petty Officer 2nd Class Vlad Potapenko
  • 438th Air Expeditonary Wing Public Affairs
Tech. Sgt. Arthur Barad, a C-27 Spatan NATO Air Training Command - Afghanistan adviser with the 440th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a strong man -- barrel-chested, he can bench-press more than three hundred pounds. But after sheering hair for the past two hours, he is tired, his voice is strained and devoid of its usual cheerfulness.

"I can't believe this many people ... I expected 20 at the most, but we have 50 (or) 60," he said as he takes a nice-sized chunk of hair from another scalp.

A few more floating strands of hair find refuge on his military-issue beige undershirt. He does not brush them away, or the 50 other kinds of hair housed by his shirt, for that matter. Instead, he wears them like he would the medals he has accrued during his career.

"It makes me feel really good," Sergeant Barad said. "It makes me feel proud that all these guys stepped up to do all this. It was from a friend of a friend and a girl that nobody has ever met."

What Sergeant Barad is proud of is that more than sixty servicemembers -- Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and coalition partners assigned to NATC-A chose to shave their heads as a symbol of solidarity for 5-year-old Lyla Grace Rivers of Vermont. She was diagnosed in August with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells characterized by excess lymphoblast. Lyla lost all of her hair due to the chemotherapy she receives as part of her treatment.

Brad Pardo, a civilian contractor working on the C-27 team from the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, came into work at the Afghan air force base in Kabul, Afghanistan with the idea of shaving his head. Mr. Pardo had just found out that the daughter of his high school friend Kelley Rivers had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and he was looking for a way to raise the young girl's spirits considering the fact that she had just lost her hair due to chemo treatments.

"I just said that I was going to shave my head, that's all I said," Mr. Pardo said. "A couple of guys heard it," he said. "I never asked them anything, and they said 'we'll do it with you. '"

Mr. Pardo said he was just looking to show Lyla that she was not alone in her fight, that she had support. He was hoping for a simple photo in front of a C-27. But what started as a small project turned into something greater than he could have ever expected.

"At first we had about eight people, and then I sent out an e-mail and got about 20 more people," he said. "And then I sent pictures of Lyla --she's 5 years old and adorable -- and once I sent her face out there we got countless more (responses)," Sergeant Barad said.

Within a day, what had started out as eight people had turned into more than 60, with not only troops working on the Afghan air force base in Kabul taking part, but also five servicemembers at the base in Shindand.

To accommodate all of the responses, Sergeant Barad organized a "shaving party". Together, with Master Sgt. Pete Tascione, a C-27 NATC-A maintenance adviser with the 440th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, Sergeant Barad spent more than two hours giving haircuts to anyone who was willing.

"It makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself," said Lt. Col. Scott Vaughn, the NATC-A director of logistics for the 438th AEW. "I am doing this for the little girl, but my mom is also a cancer survivor, so this is for Lyla, but it is also for all of the other people who go through it."

While servicemembers were being given a haircut, they were given an opportunity to record a message to Lyla. As Tech. Sgt. Darryl Guppy kneeled before them, camera in hand, many mumbled looking for the right words; many repeated a common sentiment:

"Hi Lyla, I showed your picture around to a bunch of my friends, and they thought you were so beautiful that they got jealous, so we all decided to cut our hair like you," said Mr. Pardo.

"I just like to shave people's heads," Sergeant Tascione said when asked why he was taking part in the event.

"It's just a small thing to do to raise people's spirit," he continued after a short pause to laugh at his own joke. "And I'll shave a head or my hair any day of the week. With my son having cancer, too, I know what it is like to go through this as a family member. Every day it just makes you appreciative of what you have versus what you don't have."

Whether it was a mother, a brother or son, many on hand at the "shaving party" had a personal experience with cancer.
For Betsy Riley, a civilian contractor working with the C-27 program of the 438th AEW, that personal experience meant her own battle with breast cancer.

"It's just hair," Ms. Riley said as she sat into the makeshift barber's chair.

Yes, but it was her hair. Long and brunette, it was more than 10 inches long, and easily triple the length of any other participants hair (with all of them being men). It was a personal victory as a 10-year cancer survivor. But it was also nothing compared to the opportunity she now had to inspire a little girl.

"It's only hair; it grows back," she repeated.

As she sat gently sobbing, both Sergeants Barad and Tascione went to work cutting her hair -- wet and ponytailed, she had wanted to make it as easy as possible to cut. All of the people filling the cramped room cheered and offered encouragement as they looked on. They all understood Ms. Riley's gesture.

First, Sergeant Barad cut the ponytail. Holding it in one hand, he cut through the thick band of hair with the difficulty of bone -- he struggled, he labored. When he was done, he handed it to Ms. Riley as the audience clapped. With the hard part done, Sergeants Barad and Tascione both began to sheer away her hair, taking even greater care in their effort.

When it was done, Ms. Riley rose out of her chair, wiped the tears from her eyes and walked over to hug her friend who was on hand to support her.

"You're beautiful with or without hair," said Ms. Riley, directing her comment to Lyla.

"There is so much love here in this room," she said. "Never stop hoping, never stop dreaming."

"I would do this again in a heartbeat. It's only hair," she repeated.

With everyone's hair buzzed, many of the volunteers assembled on the flightline to take a group photo in front of a C-27 with Lyla's portrait painted on it to send to her and the children of St. Jude's Childrens Research Hospital. Their fresh, pale scalps baking in the sun, everyone smiled. During the span of a few days, the realities and difficulties of life outside war brought service members together with the hope of inspiring others.

"You men and women are over here teaching and instilling our customs and values to the Afghan community, and what better example is there of who we are as a people than this here today," Mr. Pardo said.

"I am proud to stand here today and thank all of you for what you have done for Lyla and all of the kids at St. Jude," he said. "God bless each and every one of you. Thank you."