The boy, Brennan Daigle, often went fishing at the hall with his father — there is a pond surrounding the castle stocked with fish, and this fishing trip was a precursor to his 10th birthday party — but this day would be different.
Brennan caught no fish; instead, awaiting him were more than 40 Fort Polk Soldiers in full formation and standing at attention.
No company commander called them to attention, nor was the National Anthem being played. The 40 members of Fort Polk’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and members of the Louisiana National Guard stood at attention for Brennan Daigle.
Brennan was diagnosed in October 2009 with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer in which muscular tumors attach themselves to bone. The healthy young boy of 8, spindly and growing, began to lose weight and grow pale as the chemotherapy treatments he underwent took their toll.
By October 2010, the tumor had grown in size and mutated.
On Feb. 10 of this year, Brennan’s doctor gave his mother and Brennan the worst news of their lives: There was nothing more they could do for him.
“The doctor told him they’d done everything they could and that he probably had two weeks left to live. So she sent him home to be with us,” his mother said.
There would be no more needles.
After the doctor left the room, Brennan and his mother were left to absorb the news; Brennan’s mother had to come to terms suddenly with the fact that she would lose her only son and there was nothing in her power that could save him.
The power to save, or accept, would have to come from beyond: From the family’s faith.
“I know that with faith in God I’ll be OK,” he said. “I think God will lead me.”
Still, Brennan does not want to die. After hearing the news that he was being sent home to spend his last days with his parents and sister, he said so to his mother.
“I won’t see you every day,” Brennan said to his mother.
“Oh, Brennan,” she answered, “you’ll be able to walk hand in hand with your grandma who’s already in heaven, and you’ll see us again.”
Even with his intense faith, Brennan is a typical 10-year-old; he enjoys fishing, having sleepovers with his best friend, Kaleb, and playing video games, many of which glorify combat and victory.
Brennan also loves all things Army.
As his mother planned a cancer society fund-raiser event, Brennan suggested a G.I. Joe theme. The image of a strong and healthy man battling his enemies connected with Brennan, who was fighting his own battle. Days later, Brennan and his family learned that his tumor was still growing.
To keep all of his family and friends apprised of his condition, his mother created a Facebook page, called, aptly, “Brennan’s Brigade,” with pictures and hundreds of comments from people around the world — including Soldiers who have written comments of encouragement.
“Many of these Soldiers write things like, ‘we’re over here fighting for our country while you’re at home fighting for your life,’” said Daigle.
“We even got a picture of Soldiers surrounding a HMMWV in Afghanistan, holding an American flag, who gave him the message ‘We’re flying this flag in honor of you; we’re here to back you. Stay Army strong.’”
From the “Brennan’s Brigade” page, Brennan began developing bonds with some of the Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He met one of the Soldiers who came home from overseas; that Soldier gave Brennan the X Box game “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” The Soldier, Adam Langley, often plays the game with Brennan online.
“It’s Brennan’s favorite game,” his mother said.
He could not have guessed that for his 10th birthday, like an image from the game he loves, he would be surrounded by a formation of Soldiers or that he would ride in a camouflaged HMMWV.
Instead, this past Saturday, Feb. 26, as Brennan dreamed of reeling in a fish or three, he stepped out of his father’s truck to the sight of the 1st MEB Soldiers, all standing at attention in front of a National Guard HMMWV. Brennan stood still, wide-eyed, uncomprehending. Then everyone — about 400 people — shouted “Happy Birthday, Brennan!” in unison and the entire crowd broke out in applause.
“When he realized it was a surprise, and for him, he couldn’t say anything. All he could do was giggle. He was speechless,” said his mother.
A simpler party had been planned for Brennan, who had asked for an Army-themed birthday celebration.
“He was under the impression that there would be a little birthday party this coming weekend,” said his mother. “He had no idea about the castle, and we (her husband and daughter) had no idea that the Army would send Soldiers to fulfill Brennan’s wish,” — the wish to meet Soldiers before his illness worsens.
That wish was facilitated by Becky Prejean, executive director of “Dreams Come True of Louisiana.” Prejean heard through word of mouth about Brennan and contacted his mother.
“Kristy said he had two days to two weeks to live and asked if we did parties. He wanted an Army-themed party, so I contacted Katey Husband, Fort Polk community member and mother of a ‘Dreams Come True’ child, who contacted Tresa Lawson, Fort Polk’s Community Relations Officer.”
Lawson asked for five to six Soldier volunteers; 40 answered the call.
“Words can never express what I felt seeing all those Soldiers there, knowing some of them had just come back from Iraq and still took time out for just one little boy,” said Kristy Daigle. “Just to know that they care enough to give their all, to give their love and support to a little boy is phenomenal. It says so much about our men and women who serve our country in the armed forces.”
As Brennan recovered from his initial surprise, Soldiers invited him to examine the HMMWV; he climbed in the driver’s seat and took the wheel, smiling widely. Then, Soldiers took Brennan and his best friend Kaleb for a ride in the HMMWV. Afterwards, Brennan and Kaleb stood out from the hatch at the top of the vehicle, posing as hundreds of cameras flashed.
After the HMMWV ride, Brennan walked to the front of the formation and each Soldier shook his hand. He was inducted as an honorary member of the Army, given a coin symbolizing merit and achievement of excellence and presented with passels of presents ranging from a military jacket with his first name embroidered on the pocket, an Army hat, his own personalized dog tags and a rucksack. Brennan stood still, accepting the gifts quietly but with a smile.
“I’m a little shy,” Brennan said later.
One of the dog tags presented to Brennan was inscribed with the seven Army values: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal service.
“Brennan, you exemplify what personal courage means,” said Pfc. Kamesha Starkey, 1st MEB.
Chris Duncan, the mayor of Sulphur, honored Brennan with a key to the city and the title of Honorary Mayor of the Day; afterwards, Soldiers mingled for a while, talking with Brennan and his friends and family. Some hugged Brennan, some simply stood and watched in groups as Brennan explored his gifts.
Many of the Soldiers — even seasoned ones who have seen battle — were at a loss for words as they observed Brennan’s quiet grace.
“This event is a profound one. A lot of us just wanted to be there for him, show him we support him totally,” said Sgt. Joe M. Battle, 1st MEB public affairs. “But I can’t say it wasn’t hard emotionally.”
Pfc. Kyle Frederick added, “It was good to be able to give back. It opened my eyes to a lot of things: How I take my kids for granted, how lucky we are, how we complain on a day-to-day basis and we really have it good compared to others.”
A reception was held in the castle, with barbecue and a three-tiered birthday cake. The cake was decorated with an Army emblem. Brennan made the ceremonial first cut, and picked the prime piece for himself: The piece with the emblem.
After people ate, chatted and gave Brennan more hugs than most people receive in a lifetime, he sat down to open the dozens of birthday presents guests had brought for him. Like every younger sibling, as he pulled out tissue paper from gift bags, he handed all the bits and scraps to his older sister Lauren, 11.
The next day, on the way to school — Brennan still attends third grade every day — he asked his mother “Am I really in the Army?”
“You most certainly are,” she said. “They don’t just swear in anyone!”
“That’s awesome,” he said.