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Antoine Brisbois grew up hearing stories about the American military from the perspective of his grandfather.
Brisbois’ grandfather witnessed the Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War II and was directly affected by the war: His own father was a leader in the Belgian resistance until he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned inside a German concentration camp, where he lost his life.
Through his grandfather’s eyes, Brisbois gained an admiration for American troops who marched into Europe to oppose the Nazis and assist in the liberation of Belgium.
On Tuesday, Brisbois paid homage to the men and women who have served by donning a U.S. Army uniform. He then took part in a battle drill demonstration at Fort Knox as part of a two-day experience designed for Brisbois to get a glimpse of military life in the U.S.
Moved by those recollections from his grandfather, Brisbois became enamored with America and its armed forces as a child — a fascination that only grew as he matured into a teenager. Now 17, Brisbois – who said he was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 12, now in remission – wrote a letter to the Make-A-Wish Foundation a few years ago, asking the foundation to bring him to America.
The letter was sent without response and his family kept waiting. When a reply came, Brisbois was not convinced the confirmation was real.
“He thought it was a joke,” said Karine Compton, Brisbois’ translator.
Beside himself with joy, Brisbois said his excitement built as he awaited his first steps onto American soil.
“At first I could not (imagine) it,” he said through a translator. “I had only seen this in books.”
Brisbois stood in his pristine uniform with a smile on his face in the cold air as he discussed his thoughts, relaying how his friends were confused about his love for America and its military but supported him despite their lack of understanding. When asked his feelings on wearing the uniform of a soldier, his face lit up and he laughed.
“I am extremely happy,” he said, noting the honor he felt to be able to wear it. “It’s a beautiful uniform.”
Brisbois said he would love to tour the entire country and move here if afforded the chance.
Brisbois was joined by his mother, Isabelle; sister, Manon; and stepfather, Laurent Dullier. Isabelle wiped away tears as her son prepared to participate in the drills. He has talked about the U.S. and the military since he was a child and she said his ability to come to the U.S. and see an Army post with his own eyes is the best thing that has happened to him. Isabelle said her son has fought cancer like a champion and his attitude is befitting a soldier.
“It’s my son’s dream, and he’s had to go through very, very hard and painful moments,” she said. “He combated them like a soldier.”
Col. Ed Box, commander of 3rd Recruiting Brigade, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said Make-A-Wish forwarded the request to him and he felt Fort Knox was a natural fit to expose Brisbois to the live environments soldiers live and train in. During his visit, Brisbois got a glimpse of infantry training and joined in on exercises, firing weapons with blank ammunition and assisting a group of soldiers as they cleared a target house. Brisbois also rode in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, an update on the standard Humvee designed to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices. After a ride-along, Brisbois joined the unit to clear another house where enemy occupants were supposedly housed.
Box said Brisbois’ request affirms the greatness of the American military and is a compliment to the efforts of the men and women fighting to protect the country.
When asked why Fort Knox was chosen, Box said the post’s response was appropriate.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s all about Antoine. It’s all about fulfilling a dream.”
The post granted Brisbois access to its robotics and advanced technology programs and planned to escort him to a weapons simulator, where he would fire virtual versions of the Army’s cache of firearms and weaponry.
Box said Brisbois would interact with police dogs and make a visit to Godman Army Airfield to learn about military helicopters before his visit ends today.
Emily Denholm, marketing communications coordinator for the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter of Make-A-Wish Foundation, said the foundation is committed to do “whatever is going to make the child unbelievably happy,” referencing Brisbois as a young man with a touching story.
“This is not something we have as a typical wish, but each wish is unique,” Denholm said.
Following the exercises, Brisbois said his expectations were shattered once he held the guns, fired them and rode in the vehicles arm-in-arm with real soldiers. Brisbois said he already has an interest in guns so he was ready to “try them all” during the simulation.
“The reality is (much) better than I ever expected,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.