Yesterday, I read the sad news that eight-year-old Wyatt Gillette died as a result of complications from a rare genetic disease. I didn’t know Wyatt or his family; however, as a military veteran and the father of a special needs child, I know that the story of his life is a true testimony of leadership.
He was born in 2008 into a Marine family (his dad is a US Marine Drill instructor stationed in California). Shortly after his birth, his parents noticed that Wyatt wasn’t developing as he should. It took four years but doctors finally diagnosed him with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome. According to the US National Library of Medicine, Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome is a disorder that mainly affects the brain, the immune system, and the skin. For most patients, the first year of life brings episodes of severe brain dysfunction where they stop developing new skills and begin to regress in skills that they already had. This results in an abnormally small head size and ultimately leads to permanent brain damage. Additionally, it can lead to intellectual disability, muscular problems that are similar to Cerebral Palsy (muscle stiffness), and painful skin lesions. According to media reports, this disease affected Wyatt’s other major organs such as his kidneys as well. It is a very painful existence.
Most people with this disease don’t survive past childhood. In fact, doctors originally told his family that he only had a few weeks to live; however, in true Marine fashion, Wyatt defied doctors expectations. He fought the disease for an additional four years. His was the true definition of mental and physical toughness. His dad even said that he was the toughest person that he ever met. Yet, in the midst of Wyatt’s own struggles, he had a desire to serve. According to his family, Wyatt wanted nothing more than to become a Marine just like his dad. He fought his battle against this disease as courageously as his dad fought during his deployment to Iraq (which is where he was when Wyatt was born). In fact, in an article for the Marine Corps Times, Gen. Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps, said: “The courageous fight that Wyatt continues is absolutely ‘Marine.”
When it was clear that Wyatt was beginning to lose his battle against the disease, his family reached out for prayers and support. In response, they received an outpouring of love and support from the Marine Corps family. One even started a petition to have Wyatt recognized as an honorary Marine. In supporting the petition, his father said “Nothing could make me happier than to see my son Wyatt Seth Gillette become an honorary Marine. He has fought harder in the last almost eight years than I will ever have to. If I earned the title, I believe he has as well.” This is not an honor that is bestowed lightly. The title of honorary Marine must be approved by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Since it’s inception in 1992, this award has only been bestowed on 95 people. On Saturday, July 30, 2016, Wyatt became the 96th and youngest person to ever receive this honor.
On Sunday, July 31, 2016, the day after receiving his eagle, globe, and anchor, Wyatt lost his battle to this deadly disease. He died having achieved his dream of becoming a US Marine. From one veteran to another, thank you for your service. To Wyatt’s parents, as the father of a special needs child, I know that this has been a terrible ordeal for you as well. I hope that you find comfort in knowing that your son is no longer in pain. He is now in the Lord’s care and is now in the company of Marine Corps legends such as Lt. Gen. Chesty Puller, SGM Daniel Daly, and Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler. Semper Fi.