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Blue Angels Soar in Bone Marrow Donation

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Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.  -- The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, host a bone marrow drive for its team members at the squadron's hangar Oct. 31. 

The drive is organized in cooperation with the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program. 130,000, 7,500, 1,000, these are the statistics, published by the Institute of Justice, on blood disease-related diagnoses in America within the past two years. 130,000 Americans are diagnosed with serious blood diseases and blood cancers such as leukemia each year. 

7,500 Americans are afflicted by these blood diseases and, at any given time, are actively searching national registries for a donor.1,000 Americans die each year due to the inability to find a matching donor.

The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, aim to answer the call to save lives and find donors by hosting a bone marrow drive for its team members at the squadron's hangar Thursday, Oct. 31. The drive is organized in cooperation with the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.

The DoD program, which organizes donor drives as part of the larger National Marrow Donor Program, is a donor management initiative providing support to military personnel and families who volunteer to donate marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplants for patients with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other fatal blood diseases.

The squadron's first drive in August marked the Blue Angels facility as the only Department of Defense marrow donor registry facility in Northwest Florida. 

"We previously didn't have any local facilities to get registered," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Benjamin Hernandez, the aviation medicine supervisor for the Blue Angels. "The next closest facility is located in Jacksonville, Fla."

Having a donor registry facility in Pensacola has many advantages, according to Blue Angels Flight Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Mark DeBuse, not the least of which is the ability to expand the size of the overall DoD registry.

"Just about every aviation-sourced rating and military occupational specialty (MOS) for enlisted personnel and student Navy and Marine Corps aviators come through Pensacola when they go through the Naval Air Technical Training Center," said DeBuse. "So, by having the program here on this base, it helps us get many more donors out into the fleet."

Using the squadron's on-base facility as a donor registry facility is a perfect fit according to Blue Angels Right Wing Pilot Lt. Cmdr. John Hiltz. 

"What you're doing when you register is to say, Hey, I'm willing to serve my fellow man," said Hiltz. "Whether it's anonymous; or it's somebody you know... 'If someone is sick and in need, I'm willing to help them.'" 

Hiltz said, this sort of service is representative of what our 67-year-old flight demonstration squadron has come to stand for.

"Something we discuss a lot among the Blue Angels is service and excellence," said Hiltz. "There's no more excellent way to serve another human being than to say, I'm willing to give a part of my body or a part of my life to save somebody else's life. So, I think it makes perfect sense for the Blue Angels to be the only DoD facility in this area [to be a bone marrow donor registry site]."

Since the National Marrow Donor Program was created in 1986, more than six million Americans, 400,000 of whom have been service members, have registered as donors, according to the C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Program website.

"I was really shocked at how easy it was to get on the donor registry," said Hiltz. "It's literally just a cotton swab to the cheek, [writing down] some basic information and you're on the registry." 

The C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Program was created to take advantage of not only the sort of cultural diversity that is needed to find the right donors for the right patients, but also because service members are the right target demographic. 

"The DoD tends to have a large group that are very qualified for the bone marrow program," said Hernandez. "We want donors to be between the ages of 18 and 60 and in good health. That is pretty much the entire make up of our military."

"When military members register for the bone marrow program, we have the resources of the DoD," said Eddie Medina, senior recruiter for the DoD Marrow Donor Program. "If you're deployed and you're registered with another program, they don't know where to start to find you. We can find people through the DoD locator and, also, we have access to the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). So, we know where service members are and we know the protocol to follow in order to get them, when they become a possible match, to come to Washington to give a donation of either bone marrow or stem cells."

"That's the critical step, in my mind," added Medina. "We have the resources to find and contact military personnel on deployment if they are found to be a good match through the donor registry."

A few members of the Blue Angels team have a very personal knowledge of the kind of effect donor registration can have. Hiltz and Hernandez are both previous donors through the DoD Marrow Donor Program; other team members include Aviation Machinist Mate 1st Class Sergio Aguilar, who has been a registered donor since 2003, and Marine Staff Sergeant Josh Bryant, who was found as a potential match for donation this month. Hiltz was found as the best candidate for a peripheral stem cell donation in 2006, while Aguilar and Hernandez were good matches for patients in need of a bone marrow transplant in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

Donating meant all would be temporarily removed from flight status or duty responsibilities after their respective procedures: Hiltz, a new pilot at the time, was medically grounded for 45 days; Hernandez, a search and rescue corpsman, was medically grounded for 30 days; Aguilar, who was not on flight status, said he was back to work the following Monday. All received full support from their commanding officers and are grateful to have had the opportunity to save a life.

"I would tell people [who are thinking about registering and donating] that, the procedure doesn't hurt that much," said Aguilar. "Knowing you saved a life feels good. There's a little girl right now who's going to school and playing with her friends now because I did what I did. I would do it all over again." 

Hiltz added his donation was something that became deeply personal for him. Inspired by the loss of three college classmates to blood related cancers, Hiltz registered to donate in 2001. In May of 2007, Hiltz received a late-night e-mail after returning from a combat mission that read, as he described it: 'You don't know me, but my name is Drew Weiland and you saved my life.' Hiltz and Weiland stayed in contact. After Hiltz returned from deployment, the two finally met in a surprise appearance at a survivors' banquet honoring Drew in St. Louis. From then on, Hiltz said, the two became great friends.

"[Donating was] an incredibly positive experience and I would encourage anyone to sign up and do it," said Hiltz. "It's a simple thing to do... [It] can make such an impact. I was very fortunate to have had Drew and the whole Weiland family come into my life."

And, it seems, no matter what their story, donation is always personal for those who give.

"I'm excited," said Bryant about having the opportunity to donate. "Thanks to the help and support we received from the DoD medical community, my wife survived a bout with breast cancer last year. So this program gives me an opportunity to help someone else out and that really means a lot."

Bryant has been told to expect to hear about whether or not he is a good match for donation by Thanksgiving and looks forward to the possibility.

While the Oct. 31 drive is open to only Blue Angel team members, Hernandez plans to organize future drives with other units based at NAS Pensacola, Corry Station and other nearby bases, open to active duty, reserve, DoD civilian employees, retirees and all dependents.

"Now that we've established our program here," Hernandez said, "I'd like to do base-wide drives at least once a quarter. We are also a walk-in facility, so any qualifying volunteer can call us and, within our working hours, can come over to my office and register to be a bone marrow donor."

According to Hiltz, registering as a donor is something that he, Hernandez, Aguilar and Bryant, as well as many others on the Blue Angels team, see as an extension of their already established mission to represent Navy and Marine Corps aviation to the world. 

"Selfless service is at the core of what the military community is all about," said Hiltz, and he encourages everyone in the DoD family to be a part. "We hear the adage [in the military] all the time," he said. "You're fighting for the person next to you. And registering as a marrow donor is an easy way to fight for somebody who is sick and can't fight for themselves. So, that's a great reason to sign up."

For more information on registering as a DoD donor in the Pensacola area, call the Blue Angels Aviation Medicine Office at (850) 452-7469.

To contact the C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Program, call 1-800-MARROW-3 or visit their website at www.dodmarrow.org. 

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