16-year-old cancer patient has a blast in one-day enlistment


Photo credit: David Rolfe/Winston-Salem Journal

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For as long as he can remember, 16-year-old Devin Sutherland has dreamed of being in the U.S. military.

A battle with bone cancer, however, has eliminated that possibility.

But Tuesday morning, the North Carolina National Guard fulfilled Devin’s dream of being an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician — if only for a day. Decked out in Army gear, Devin was sworn in at the N.C. National Guard Army Readiness Center on Silas Creek Parkway as a private in the N.C. National Guard. He received EOD certification and a crash course in training that normally takes a year to complete.

Doctors discovered Devin’s cancer when he was 15. He has been cancer-free for four months, but is considered terminally ill after chemotherapy left him with heart complications. He uses a wheelchair to get around most of the time.

“Today we are honoring a young man in the final stages of heart failure and fulfilling his dream,” Staff Sgt. Ciara Riley said. “Devin’s such a genuine and loving person, and it’s important for us to be able to do this for him.”

Riley met Devin, who lives in Castlewood, Va., at the Brenner Children’s Hospital three weeks ago, where he is receiving medical treatment.

Although Devin didn’t know that Riley — an intern nurse at the hospital — was in the Army, he told her that he had always dreamed of being an EOD technician like in the Oscar-nominated film “The Hurt Locker.”

Riley said she was determined to make Devin’s dream come true.

“Working at Brenner’s, you do what you can because they’re not just patients, they’re kids,” she said. “That little boy stole my heart. I didn’t know how, but I was going to make his dream happen.”

Riley contacted Cpl. Angie Swaim, the commander of the Hazardous Devices Unit for the Winston-Salem Police Department, who said she would help and suggested that Devin go to the N.C. National Guard facility and live out his dream.

A few days later, Riley showed up at the hospital in her Army gear and invited Devin to do just that, an invitation he happily accepted.

“When you have the chance to enable someone to become the person they want to be, of course we were going to help,” Swaim said. “I wish he would be able to get up (out of his wheelchair) and move around and be a kid, but I’m glad we can make his dream a possibility.”

The bomb squad provided some of the equipment for Devin’s training, including a bomb suit that weighs 100 pounds, which Devin got to try on.

“Being here means everything to him because it’s something he’s always wanted to do, but after the cancer and surgeries, it’s doubtful,” said Steven Sutherland, Devin’s father. “He’s just been through so much.”

Devin also got to blow up a package, work with bomb dogs to detect explosive devices and operate a bomb disposal robot.

After the day of activities, Devin was officially retired from the military.

“It’s just always been my dream to be an EOD in the military, so today means a lot to me,” Devin said. “I won’t be able to go into the military now, but at least I get to be Pvt. Sutherland for the day.”

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