DYESS AFB, Texas — (Editor's note: This story is contributed from Dyess Air Force Base)
On July 14, 2019, Tech. Sgt. Justin SoileauGobert’s, 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron aircraft crew chief, concerns about his daughter’s continuing lack of energy and bruising on her body set off an alarm that sent his wife, Kaleena, and daughter, Jayda, to the Hendrik Medical Center emergency room in Abilene, Texas. As soon as Kaleena transported her daughter to the hands of caring medical professionals, she knew something was seriously wrong. Kaleena could see it on their faces. Upon examination, Jayda presented all the symptoms of having acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a common but life threatening form of the disease, if not treated as soon as possible.
By the time Justin arrived at Hendrick Medical Center, his wife had already googled the preliminary diagnosis. The news was devastating. Justin had to console his wife and keep her reaction hidden from Jayda. At one point, Justin had to go to the restroom to deal with his emotions and to shed his own tears.
“It’s pretty hard to keep your emotions in check,” Justin said.
When he returned, he put on a brave face and told his daughter she was going to Cook Children’s Medical Center for further tests.
Jayda, accompanied by her mother, was transported immediately by ambulance to Cook Children’s Medical Center, in Fort Worth, Texas, 160 miles from Dyess Air Force Base. Justin remained in Abilene with his two other children.
The frightened, panic-stricken SoileauGobert family had no idea what was in store for them or their daughter. Jayda underwent a lumbar puncture procedure to verify the diagnosis and was immediately placed on chemotherapy. All this occurred in less than 12 hours from when they first went to the emergency room.
As the day unfolded, all that Justin and Kaleena had was resilience, what else did they have? It became apparent over the next few days that Justin had something else; his wingmen. He was fortunate to have compassionate military leaders and co-workers that rallied around him. He was lucky because the officers and non-commissioned officers that stood on the rungs of the chain of command ladder embraced the challenge to reconfigure their team to accommodate Justin’s family care.
Lt. Col. David Grasso, 337th TES commander, and Senior Master Sgt. Clifford Schuelke, 337th TES superintendent, both of whom visited Jayda in the hospital bearing gifts, told Justin to take care of his daughter and not to worry about his job. Their decision enabled Justin and his wife to alternate each week to remain with Jayda at the Fort Worth Ronald McDonald house, just two miles from Cook Children’s Medical Center, while his wingmen closed ranks and picked up the slack.
“There were lots of children at the Ronald McDonald house undergoing the same treatment as my daughter,” said Justin. “We all anticipated the results of the white cell blood count since that was a good measure of progress. Unfortunately some of the kids didn’t make it. That’s when I had self-doubts that I didn’t bring her in soon enough.”
For approximately a year, Jayda underwent a regime of treatment including therapy protocols prescribed by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the nation’s leading children’s hospital in treating the toughest childhood cancers and pediatric diseases. Cook and St. Jude’s care were paramount in Jayda’s remission. Justin was, and continues to be, grateful to the medical professionals at those two facilities.
Jayda’s remission has not only been a miraculous two-year journey shared by Justin, Kaleena and the men and women assigned to the 337th TES, but Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, Chief Master Sergeant of the United States Air Force, also reached out to Justin.
During an official visit to Dyess AFB, in August 2019, Wright was informed of the SoileauGobert family’s situation by Justin’s squadron commander. At that time, Jayda’s prognosis was uncertain. Wright asked Justin to reach out to him at any time and gave him his cell phone number. When Justin later sent a text message to the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, he didn’t know if the senior enlisted member of the Air Force would remember him, or even respond. Wright didn’t forget, he responded. Justin and Kaleena added another member to their wingmen.
Throughout her ordeal, Jayda appeared to have a positive attitude, something Justin said was a strong front when she was with people, but when she was at home, she often complained of pain and didn’t want to take her medications. Justin and Kaleena’s strength and encouragement enabled Jayda to persevere.
One of the highlight’s of Jayda’s journey was having a chance to taxi in a B-1B Lancer aircraft in July 2021. Justin, who maintained the B-1 for years, had the unique experience of showing Kaleena and Jayda the cockpit while the aircraft taxied along the Dyess AFB ramp.
“Jayda was excited during her incentive taxi,” Justin said. “She really didn’t say much; her face said it all.”
Everyone responsible for giving the 13-year-old her day, and everyone who supported her family during her treatment, are warriors, yes, but they are also proud members of SoileauGobert’s family of wingmen.
Jayda still receives treatment at Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene every other week and at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth once a month. Though the disease may be persistent, Jayda is a tenacious warrior, just like her father.