Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Kid who beat cancer gets wish to be soldier
By Blake Belden, staff writer
Aug 4, 2014, 15:14

BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT 13-year-old John ‘Jack’ McDonagh got a chance to train with soldiers at Fort Lee last week.
FORT LEE — Surrounded by a group of smiling soldiers with their arms around each other, 13-year-old John “Jack” McDonagh stood on a training field at Fort Lee in a custom uniform with his name on the front pocket. With his cancer in the rearview mirror, Jack proudly stood in good health, getting to experience what it is like to be in the Army.

Jack was first diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, liver cancer, almost 10 years ago just before his fourth birthday. After going through chemotherapy and hair loss, doctors eventually determined that the best way to treat his cancer was with a liver transplant. They went into transplant where they took a piece of his mother, Karen’s, liver to give to Jack, however complications during the surgery ultimately led to the need for another transplant two and half years later.

“The good news is he has been cancer free for nine years, the bad news is we ended up having two liver transplants. But he actually does very well. He takes immuno-suppression drugs now, and you can see him, he looks like a normal boy. He has a very normal life. ... We’re really, really fortunate,” Karen said with a smile.

Karen said that the Make-A-Wish Foundation contacted them nine years ago when Jack’s cancer was bad, at a point where the family was not ready to willingly accept the offer.

“I said ‘no, my son is going to live,’ you know, like I didn’t want a wish. I said ‘No, no, no, it doesn’t mean that he’s dying, it means that he’s got a serious disease.’ So we said great, we just can’t deal with this right now,” Karen said, mentioning that they even tried giving the wish back, but Make-A-Wish would not let them return it.

Jack had until he was 18 to take up the foundation on their offer, and every couple of years the foundation would check back in and see if Jack was ready to make a choice.

He had eventually decided that he wanted to experience what it was like to be in the Army when they called again in the fall of 2013, and from there organizers through the foundation set up a three-day camp at Fort Lee.

Flying in from Chicago, Jack was joined by his mother, father, and 10-year-old brother, Andrew, who actually got to experience all of the military training with Jack.

Over the course of three days, Jack went through a mini boot camp of sorts where he learned military training and exercises including vehicle recovery scenarios, tactical convoy procedures with a 360-degree simulation room and land navigation exercises.

On Thursday, the final day of his experience, Jack went on a land navigation exercise where he acted as a platoon leader. Followed by a squad of soldiers from Fort Lee and Andrew, they walked through a makeshift Middle Eastern village, in a field on the military base designed to look like a town, an exercise meant to train soldiers on how to approach foreign areas and contact village elders.

Several soldiers also dressed up in Middle Eastern clothing to act as villagers, and the exercise eventually ended in a search of the village and simulated disposal of recovered explosive material.

After everything Jack has been through concerning his health, he said the experience at Fort Lee really meant a lot to him.

“It’s been really awesome. I feel 100 percent. I’ve been looking forward to this since we granted a few months ago. And it’s been all of my expectations and more,” Jack said.

Jack, who said that he would like to pursue a career in the Army, was not ready to leave on Friday, and said that he got to do a lot of things that he had not expected he would.

“My favorite part of training was probably EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) training, so basically dragging robots around and opening briefcases and disarming bombs with the little robots. It’s really fun,” Jack said.

Karen said there was an overwhelming “generous spirit” from everyone they met during the trip, and that it has been an incredible experience for Jack.

“People will stop us in the elevator or the hallway, the guys are pulling patches off their shoulders and putting them on Jack. We were in the restaurant at the hotel this morning, and one of the Special Ops guys pulled his patch off and gave it to [Jack]. And this morning, we did revelry with Charlie Company, and there was an officer from Thailand who took one of his country patches and gave it Jack. Just amazing,” Karen said.

Although Jack has been healthy for nearly a decade, Karen said this acted as a positive reminder of the days when he was not so healthy.

“For us, it’s actually brought up some of the memories of how bad off Jack was, and to see him like this is just such a blessing,” Karen said.

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