MILLERSPORT, Ohio -- The Soldiers flanked the casket, solemn and precise, and folded the American flag with a yank-and-flip motion. On one knee, a sergeant presented the flag to a grieving mother.
Around them, mourners with red eyes and heaving shoulders testified, silently, to the mark Dennis Channel Jr. left on each of them.
Seven Soldiers from the Ohio Army National Guard raised their rifles and fired three rounds. A lone bugler sounded taps, a haunting call that wafted over the nearby graves of veterans.
Dennis, known to all as "Bubba," was buried Monday with full military honors.
He was 12 years old.
The Millersport boy was too young to be a Soldier or a veteran, for whom such an honor is generally reserved.
Sgt. Maj. Rebecca Herzog had never led an honor guard at a funeral for anyone out of uniform, except a member of Congress, in 10 years on the job. But Dennis deserved it, the Guard decided.
He was his own kind of warrior. He waged a battle with brain cancer, diagnosed when he was just 5 years old. He was a brave Soldier, all agreed, one who changed the world for the better.
Dennis died, holding his parents' hands, shortly after 3 a.m. Friday, Dec. 19.
Those at his funeral -- relatives, teachers, classmates -- spoke about the way the little boy with the big brown eyes changed them in the short time he had.
In one way, he was an ordinary boy who loved dinosaurs and BMX, and his mom and dad most of all.
But friends and family members also remembered the extraordinary spirit and peace that Dennis possessed, always positive, polite and faithful despite his suffering.
He never complained, even though he had to leave school in second grade and endure several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, said his father, Dennis.
He talked to anyone who would listen about God's goodness, said Paula Clark, his former teacher.
"His No. 1 concern was how everybody else was," she said. "I've taught school for 26 years, and never have I encountered anybody who had a soul like he had."
He loved his country and developed a passion for the military from a young age, thanks to his father, a veteran, and relatives of his mother, Shawna.
It was his dream to be an Army chaplain.
"He said he used to talk to God," said his father, who wore a dog tag adorned with a photo of his son. "And God wanted him to help people."
An Army battalion based in Fort Campbell, Ky., adopted Dennis, who visited the Soldiers. They gave him a uniform and beret.
He made fast friends with Soldiers based in central Ohio, too. He earned honorary status as a member of the U.S. Army and as a chaplain for the Ohio National Guard.
His dreams didn't go unfulfilled, said the Rev. Steve Bush, who officiated at Dennis' funeral at Lighthouse Memorial Church in Millersport.
"Look at this room. He filled it," Bush said during the service, before an estimated crowd of more than 400. "Most chaplains, most pastors I know, would long for the influence Dennis had over those he loved, and even those he didn't."
Dennis was buried in his uniform and beret, in a casket painted with tanks and helicopters. A pair of combat boots sat nearby. Classmates at Millersport Elementary School signed a picture of an American flag, which sat inside the casket.
Dennis had a profound effect on his peers, Clark said. He taught them how to be strong, and they learned compassion by organizing fundraisers for him.
"That class will be extra-special because of that," Clark said. "They know what it is to help people."
Dennis inspired grown-ups, too. A group of veterans from Buckeye Lake saluted his casket at his gravesite.
Col. Andrew Aquino, a military chaplain, presented the boy's parents with a medal for meritorious service from the state of Ohio.
"God has really given us a special blessing," he said, "in knowing Bubba."
By Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly D. Snow
Adj. Gen. Dept. Public Affairs
Ohio National Guard
Dennis Channel Jr. is the picture of an American hero from the green beret pulled down smartly over his closely-cropped hair to the desert combat boots encasing his marching feet. However, at only 4 feet 4 inches tall and about 65 pounds, “Bubba,” as those closest to Dennis affectionately refer to him, is a bit smaller than the average Soldier. But then, he is only in the fourth grade. He is a child like no other—and like every other. And at the tender age of 11, he is in a fight for his life. But many days, one would never guess it.
A rough start
Born with a cleft palate and diagnosed with astrocytoma—a cancerous brain tumor—at 5 years old, Bubba has seen more hospital rooms than any child should ever endure. He bears the scars of 11 surgeries, has lost and regrown his hair following numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and tolerated extreme weight gain and loss due to hormone therapy.
“They gave him five years. That was more than six years ago,” said his mother, Shawna. “We call him our walking miracle.”
Today, his mischievous grin, deceptively healthy appearance and positive outlook make it hard to imagine the preteen is fighting for his life.
“He’s always so positive,” Shawna said. “Sometimes I find our roles are reversed. Sometimes when I’m having a tough day, I look to him for inspiration.”
Like many boys his age, Bubba loves riding his go-cart, playing with his friends and especially wrestling with his brother, Kile. He attends classes at his local elementary school along with Kile, 9, and his sister, Tasha, 6. Although radiation and chemotherapy treatments kept him away from his peers at Millersport Elementary School for more than a year, he now attends classes half days when he’s not sidelined by the severe headaches that sometimes accompany his illness.
“He loves being back in school,” Shawna said. “He just wants to be a normal kid. The other kids are really supportive. They’re really great to him.”
Although in many respects he’s like any kid his age, his father, Dennis Channel Sr., a former regular Army troop, raised Bubba to carry himself with the confidence and respect of a Soldier. When questioned, his reply is consistently followed by “sir” or “ma’am.” He displays a level of patriotism and stoicism rare even among the ranks of combat-hardened veterans—which is perhaps why many of them, including his friends in the Ohio National Guard, react so strongly to him.
“He was 4 or 5 when the (World Trade Center) towers fell,” Shawna said. “He watched it on TV. That was when he got into the military. He quit playing with his other toys and all he wanted to do was be a Soldier.”
When he is feeling well enough to attend school, Bubba usually wears the Army combat uniform, complete with rank and Special Forces patches, given to him by Soldiers from the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 5th Special Forces Group during a visit to the post this summer.
“One of the kids at school said, ‘Why do you wear that?’ Cause I like the Army and I support the troops!” Bubba said earnestly. “One of the other kids tried to take my flag off my jacket. I about kicked his butt!”
Last spring, after surviving a particularly rough, experimental treatment, Bubba’s uncle, Steve Channel, a former military police officer, awarded him the latest addition to his uniform—a patch on his right shoulder sleeve. The patch had been sent to him from a friend serving in Iraq after learning of Bubba’s battle with cancer. A right sleeve patch is a badge of honor among Soldiers, signifying they have served in a combat zone.
“He went through a new chemo treatment that’s only been tested on three other kids,” Shawna said. “It nearly killed him. His uncle Steve gave it to him after that.”
Bubba’s room, dubbed “the bunker,” houses the rest of his rather large military collection. Military model aircraft hang from the ceiling and his dresser is painted in jungle camouflage. Coins, posters, photos and certificates—most gifts from U.S. troops stationed all over the world—cover nearly every surface in the room. Two American flags that have flown over U.S. bases in Iraq are proudly displayed on one wall, and signed letters and photographs from several high-ranking officials including President George W. Bush dominate the opposite wall.
“He’s sort of become a celebrity. I don’t know how half of these people hear about Bubba,” Shawna said. “Some of these things just show up here.”
His two favorite songs are Toby Keith’s post-Sept. 11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which he sang at a recent school assembly. His outspoken love of country and the U.S. military is almost immediately apparent to everyone he meets and as a result, he has been unofficially adopted by individuals and units from all branches of service—most recently, the Ohio National Guard.
Pilot for a day
After learning about Bubba through letters and e-mails from the offices of U.S. Representatives Patrick J. Tiberi (Ohio’s 12th district) and Zack Space (Ohio’s 18th district), Ohio National Guard officials arranged a “Pilot for a Day” visit Oct. 23 for Bubba and his family at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base. They spent the first half of the day with Airmen from the 121st Air Refueling Wing and the second half with Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 137th Aviation Regiment.
As they approached the base’s main entrance to begin their visit, an electronic billboard out front displayed the greeting, “Welcome to the 121st ARW. Welcome Dennis Channel.” Once inside, Senior Master Sgt. Rich Coots, a life support specialist with the 121st, presented Dennis with a flight suit and jacket complete with a personalized The Ohio State University Buckeyes nametape (just like all the pilots he met that day) and unit patches, along with a VIP badge. Coots hauled out his Air Force survival equipment and explained each item’s use, letting the kids wear and try out the equipment. As a special treat, he put Bubba in a harness and set him up in a parachute trainer. Bubba hung suspended from the apparatus, a huge grin disappearing beneath the tinted visor of the flight helmet as he gave everyone an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“Can my brother do it, too?” he asked Coots as he climbed out of the contraption. Throughout the day, Bubba continued to request his family members be allowed to share in the fun, particularly, Kile.
After touring the facility and crawling through a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft used for mid-air refueling, the group broke for lunch. Master Sgt. Kevin Colwell, operations noncommissioned officer for Company B, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, and Staff Sgt. Steven Clemente, the unit’s training NCO, learned of Dennis’ visit and arranged to meet the group for lunch. Colwell, who suffered the loss of his 4-year-old son, Austin, to Spinal Muscular Atrophy two years ago, quickly bonded with Bubba and invited him and the Channel family back to observe an airborne operation they would be conducting at their next drill assembly.
The family returned to the base to spend the second half of their day at the Army Aviation facility, touring the hangar, climbing around in Black Hawk helicopters and checking out the weapons and equipment. Despite a dreary, rainy morning and afternoon, the weather cleared up just enough for the day’s highlight. Although military regulations prohibited a flight in a military aircraft, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Adam Worthington, who is also a helicopter pilot for the Columbus Police Department, arranged to fly his CPD helicopter onto the base and offered Dennis a ride as honorary “copilot.” Once again, Bubba wanted to share the experience and his uncle Steve joined them for a flight over Columbus, including Bubba’s house and The Ohio State University’s “Horseshoe” stadium.
A day with the Green Berets
Bubba and about a dozen family members returned to the base Nov. 4 to watch the Special Forces troops prepare for and jump from a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter. Colwell, the assigned jumpmaster for the day’s mission, brought them into the hangar to watch as the men suited up, packed their parachutes and conducted safety briefings and inspections, then took them out to tour the helicopter and meet the crew.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Scott Vega, one of the pilots, explained the various features of the aircraft as Bubba peppered him with questions.
“How fast can you go? How much does it weigh? How long are the rotor blades?” Bubba asked. He absorbed of all the information and was astonished when Vega explained that the 23,000-plus pound helicopter is buoyant.
“I can’t believe that thing can float… that’s something,” he said, shaking his head.
As the mission time approached, they were shuttled out to the drop zone to get a first hand view of the operation. They approached just as the first group of jumpers was exiting the helicopter. As they exited the bus, their heads automatically tilted back and they peered upward, eyes squinted, trying to focus on the small dots in the sky above them. Gradually, the dots grew larger and began to take shape as the paratroopers drew closer and finally began dropping onto the grass around them.
As one troop, Master Sgt. Rodney Goss, landed nearby, Bubba strode confidently up to him and extended his hand. “Good job,” he said. “You did a really good job!”
The Special Forces paratrooper broke into a wide grin and extended his hand, engulfing Bubba’s tiny hand with his own. “Thanks, buddy!” he replied.
A Soldier’s heart
Back at home a few weeks later, the Channel family spends a lazy Sunday afternoon decorating for Christmas and mentally preparing for Bubba’s next round of treatment scheduled for Dec. 18, just a week shy of Christmas. The gamma knife surgery—which doesn’t use a surgical blade at all, but rather a precise dose of radiation—will pinpoint 201 laser beams at a new tumor in his brain, hoping to stop it in its tracks. They expect the outpatient treatment will allow Bubba to be back in the comfort of his “bunker” the same day.
Although Bubba receives most of his treatment at Children’s Hospital, all radiation treatments are administered at The Ohio State University’s James Cancer Center. While undergoing radiation treatments, the patient must lie still; this can be difficult, especially for a young child. During these treatments, Bubba found a special way to keep his mind occupied.
“When he went through his chemotherapy treatments, he would close his eyes and sing cadence,” Shawna said. “By the time he was through with the series of treatments, the nurses and health care staff were singing cadence with him.”
Colwell has stopped by this day to visit with Bubba and the family and to deliver a gift—a music video produced by Spc. Steve Engle, a broadcast journalist with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, using footage from the previous weeks’ visits. Bubba sits quietly back, occasionally chatting with the adults as his siblings and cousins wrestle around on the floor. He’s suffering a headache, but won’t complain. That’s a problem, Shawna says—his doctors have told her that they need to watch him closely because he often won’t complain until the pain is nearly intolerable. She said he abhors the mental fogginess the morphine brings and he simply doesn’t want to trouble anyone.
The group gathers around a television in the small living room to watch the video; they’re set to Bubba’s two favorite songs. As they watch, tears begin to well up in the eyes of Dennis Sr., who is sitting alone opposite his wife. He silently rises and moves to sit next to Shawna, drawing her close. Bubba observes the gesture, smiles and continues watching. He is used to witnessing such emotion, and seems to draw strength and comfort from it.
“He tells us to look on the bright side,” Shawna says. “He said he talked to God and He told him, ‘God gave me this cancer as a gift so I can touch people’s lives.’ He was 5 or 6 when he first said that.”
As he better understands his illness and its limitations, Bubba’s dreams of serving in the Army have evolved. He holds out a black nylon case with his name embroidered on it. It was his favorite birthday present this year, he tells Colwell. He unzips the case to show a camouflage bible. His dream now is to be an Army chaplain.
Although he may not recognize it, his dream of serving and comforting troops is already being realized. His enthusiasm, strength and patriotism remind the Soldiers he meets of why they serve. He makes them feel good about what they do and as a result, they stand a little taller in their uniforms.
“Dennis brings out the best in people, the best in human nature,” Colwell said. “I immediately noticed similarities with other people I’ve known in similar situations and it’s easy to see his strength, courage and joy for life.”
Despite the hardships and hurdles, Bubba’s extended family remains hopeful and optimistic, and is determined to follow the doctor’s advice, Shawna said.
“His doctor told us ‘It’s not the quantity, but the quality that’s important. So go live life,’” she said.
For more information or to send a message of suppport, visit Bubba’s website at caringbridge.org/visit/dennischannel
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