A dream to fly, battle to fight, hope to win

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- For his mother, the signs were there early.

"While we were stationed here at MHAFB, he would hear the F-111 fly overhead, crawl over to the window and pull himself up to look at the jets flying over," Cindy McClaskey said. "That's when I knew he liked airplanes and had a passion for it. That's a very distinct memory in my mind. He was less than a year old."

As a third generation Gunfighter (he and his mother were born in the same delivery room on base) 23-year-old Christopher McClaskey was privy to Cold War stories from his grandfather and frequent MHAFB air show visits with his grandmother as a child.

"Instead of toy cars he asked for jets," Mrs. McClaskey said. "He would draw World War II aircraft during class. His favorite t-shirt displayed a 391st Fighter Squadron Bold Tiger logo on the front and an F-15E on the back."

It was only natural for Christopher to follow his heart into an aviation career, namely an Air Force fighter pilot, his mother said.

However, a condition called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow on nerve endings, ultimately disqualified Christopher from serving in any branch of the military.

"I couldn't even go join the Army and start my way up from a private - the recruiters said, 'No way, no one with NF can join the military," Christopher said. "Joining the Air Force is what I had strived for my whole life, but the recruiter said they couldn't make an exception. He was very sorry about it though, because he knew how badly I wanted to join."

In addition to NF, Christopher suffers from a cancerous tumor in his cerebellum which was found accidentally about three and a half years ago during a routine Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan.

"Normally, they're benign tumors - NF is usually a pretty benign disease," Mrs. McClaskey said. "He would go in for routine MRIs on his back and legs. One day they decided to run an MRI on his brain because it had been four years since his last one, and they discovered the brain tumor."

The tumor affects Christopher's short-term memory, and causes double-vision, headaches and nausea.

"And, it's terminal," Christopher said. "People with NF rarely get brain tumors and cancer. Sometimes they don't get tumors in the brain, especially with the type I have, NF 1. With NF 1, you usually have more surface tumors. Type 2 is more of the internal stuff. So this is a very rare thing that has happened to me."

When the 391st FS heard about Christopher's misfortune and his passion for aviation they jumped at the chance to host the McClaskeys for a tour of the 391st Fighter Squadron, an F-15E static display and a ride in an aircraft simulator - to Christopher's delight.

"It was a dream come true for him," said Mark McClaskey, Christopher's father. "He got to do something he's wanted to experience, but never had the chance. Just going into the buildings people normally don't get to go into - this has just been great.

"And it's awesome for him to get to talk to people who speak his language, because we don't," Mr. McClaskey added. "A lot of the times we don't know what he's talking about, but the pilot and the ground crew all knew. It's great for him to be able to talk to them like that."

Christopher, who says he loves to play combat-style video games, was thrilled with the opportunity to fly in an F-15E simulator.

"It's like a big video game, basically," he said. "I might not have ever been able to fly in a fighter jet, but it's the closest thing to it!"

Mrs. McClaskey was touched by the efforts of the members of the 391st.

"I've always been proud of the fact that my dad was in the Air Force and that Christopher and I were born here," she said. "You all have made me even prouder. Chris is a very patriotic person - we all are in our family. You all have gone above and beyond making this a great day for him."

Although he was not able to join the Air Force, Christopher truly has the Airman's warrior ethos, evident in his response to his doctor's three- to four-year prognosis.

"I beat the three-year mark back a few months ago and I'm still kicking strong," he said. "I know I'm going to beat the four-year mark. My mom has always said I have the heart of a soldier because I've always been a fighter - I've fought for everything in my life. I'm not going to lie down and give up. I'm going to fight this until I can't anymore."