JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
With eyes brimming with excitement and a smile stretching from ear to ear, one might never guess that just under a year ago, this 12 year old was hospitalized with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of quick spreading cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of bone marrow.
Fortunately, after being diagnosed and beginning an aggressive treatment program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Md., with the loving support of her family, friends, and community, Carolyn Shaffer has been in remission and off treatment for nine months.
To honor and highlight Carolyn’s valiant battle against cancer, Joint Base Andrews teamed up with the Check-6 Foundation, a local non-profit, to make her Pilot for a Day.
As an honorary pilot, Carolyn paired up with her wingman 1st Lt. Katelyn Potts, a KC-135 pilot with the 459th Air Refueling Wing. Guided by her new wingman and volunteers from numerous squadrons and organizations here, Carolyn donned a personalized flight suit and flew a UH-1N Iroquois simulator, toured multiple aircraft including an F-16 Fighting Falcon and KC-135 Stratotanker, and participated in a variety of base demonstrations.
“This opportunity gives the family a chance to come out and understand that everyone is here for them,” said Lt. Col. Rob Balzano, 201st Airlift Squadron C-40 pilot. “Carolyn’s story is an inspiration to so many people. It provides hope to many other kids who may be going through the same thing.”
Reminiscent of her treatment, the entire Shaffer family showed up to support Carolyn on her mission as Pilot for a Day, including her parents Dave and Sarah, and her siblings – Catherine, Anthony, Matthew and Brigid.
“Carolyn has faced challenges that many people have never faced,” said Dave Shaffer, Carolyn’s father and retired Navy commander. “She’s really redefined my idea of a hero. I’ve been around some special men and women throughout my military career but seeing what she has endured is remarkable. For her today to be around courageous people that I’ve considered heroes over the course of my career is the perfect combination.”
The same joyous smile that Carolyn wore when she arrived to the base remained to the end where her family, friends and newfound wingmen, representing various units from throughout the base, met for the day’s closing ceremony. There, Balzano handed Carolyn her flight suit nametape, embroidered with her new call sign, ‘Carolyn the Conqueror’.
“I can’t decide what my favorite part was; they were all great,” Carolyn said. “If someone asked me which part of the day I would replay, I would choose the entire day. It was the best day ever.”
Before the ceremony came to a close, Carolyn was sure to pass along a message to children that may find themselves gearing up to battle any hardship in front of them.
“You’ve just got to push through,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe it. You’ve just got to push.”