Supporting Our Heroes… Even the Littlest Ones

“Not all heroes wear body armor.”

That was the thought that went through my head recently when I learned that Ryan William Raffel, age 5, had lost his battle with leukemia. Ryan was the son of Mike and Mikelle Raffel, an Army family stationed at Fort Belvoir. Ryan had beaten cancer one time already and just a couple of months ago had been playing in the surf at Rehobeth Beach in Delaware.

One day after his passing, on what would have been his sixth birthday, Mikelle wrote “Happy Birthday Ryan. Today you would be 6. Momma aches for you so much right now.” Two days later, Mike and Mikelle sat down for an interview for The Truth 365 Project (, a documentary and social media campaign aimed at high- lighting the lack of research being done for childhood cancers.

There they were, in the midst of what must be almost unbearable grief, and they’re trying to make the world a better place. I don’t know if I would have had the strength that Mike and Mikelle had that day, just a couple after Ryan had passed. That was Army Strong and then some. I personally take a number of lessons from the Raffels’ experience:


As a culture we seem to celebrate all the wrong things, particularly in the media. Here’s a kid who faced more in his short life than most of us do in a lifetime. Ryan was one of our beautiful military kids, who loved life so much- whether it was dancing the peanut-butter-jelly song, playing with his Legos, or making a friend laugh. All the while, he was fighting this intense medical battle with such courage and fortitude. His story most likely won’t make the news, a reality show or an award ceremony. I wish we had a kid’s Medal of Honor. No doubt, Ryan would have earned it.


So many military families, and the communities that support them, have incredible strength. I think of the upcoming holidays andhowweneedtodoabet- ter job supporting those military families who might not have solid support for some reason people who might be new to the area or not as social as some, or maybe they’re living in a Fisher House helping a family member recover. Perhaps the Raffels can so effectively advocate for others because a caring circle of family and friends is advocating and lifting them up when they need it. We all can think about ways to “pay it forward,” so help comes back to us when we’re the ones who need it.


We in the advocacy field need to do a better job of reaching be- yond our fields of interest and areas where we feel comfortable. Parents of kids with autism need to be more involved helping kids with cancer and vice versa. Parents of “typically developing kids” need to think about those who aren’t blessed with health. If you’ve advocated as a member of the PTA, try something outside your comfort zone by spending some time in your local NICU or nursing home. We’d all be better off developing a broad range of advocacy skills and interest areas-that cross-pollination of talent and interests brings such a well of diversity and thought that makes everyone better off.

Finally, the Raffel’s experience reminds me how fleeting life can be and how thankful each of us should be for the friends and family we have in our lives. This holiday season, remember the Raffels and other similarly situated families. Then give your kids an extra-long hug and tell them: “We are going to make a difference this year.”


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