Army Staff Sgt. Justin Skotnicki, right, helps Belgian teen Antoine Brisbois with his kevlar vest on Dec. 11 at Fort Knox, Ky. Antoine developed life-threatening bone cancer at age 12 and had to have his right arm amputated. Now 17 and still battling bone cancer, Antoine on Tuesday got to fulfill a lifelong wish at Fort Knox, where he spent the first of two days receiving hands-on training and experience as an American soldier, thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the U.S. Army. (Michael Clevenger / The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-)
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FORT KNOX, Ky. — Antoine Brisbois grew up in Belgium enraptured by his grandfather's firsthand stories of Nazi occupation and the hard-fought liberation by U.S. troops during World War II.
For Antoine, it grew into a childhood passion for soldiering and the U.S. Army, even after he developed life-threatening bone cancer at 12 and had to have his right arm amputated.
Now 17 and still battling cancer, Antoine got to fulfill a lifelong wish Tuesday at Fort Knox, where he spent the first of two days receiving personal training and experiences as an American soldier, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Army, which picked the Kentucky post for the visit.
In a mockup of an Afghan town made from shipping containers, Antoine leapt from the back of an armored truck in full combat gear, firing blanks alongside a 3rd Brigade combat unit training to clear a nest of insurgents. Later, he would disarm explosives, sample field rations, sit in an attack helicopter and become an honorary officer.
Nearby, his mother, Isabelle Francois, a Belgian furniture maker who came on the trip with her husband and daughter, wiped away tears as she watched.
"It's his dream. He has gone through very hard and painful moments," she said in French through an interpreter. "He has been courageous just like a real soldier."
Antoine, a pale but healthy-looking teen of few words who has a prosthetic arm, said during his first trip to the U.S. that his disease is currently in remission. But family members said his prognosis is uncertain and they are taking things "day by day."
A beaming Antoine declared it was "an honor to wear the uniform" before shaking hands with dozens of soldiers and officers, acknowledging that some friends back home had trouble understanding his passion for the American military, which he said he "really likes."
"This is a first," said Sgt. First Class Anthony Roszko, who helped coordinate the training, which included an examination of a sniper's rifles. "Most times you hear of people dreaming to be a professional athlete or something. When we heard that his wish was being a soldier, we jumped at the opportunity to help. We're very honored."
To fulfill Antoine's wish, the Army enlisted the help of units ranging from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division to the 703rd Explosives Ordnance Company and the 229th Aviation Regiment.
Emily Denholm, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio Headquarters of the Make-A-Wish Foundation — which grants wishes to children with life-threatening conditions — said Antoine's wish was unusual for her group, too.
Make-A-Wish, which gets most of its funding from contributions, operates in 36 countries. Officials said 70 percent of all wishes involve travel. Children must be between 2 and 18.
Antoine's family sent a letter to the foundation nearly three years ago, outlining how his dream came into being.
Antoine's grandfather was only 14 when the Germans occupied Belgium, Francois said, adding that his great-grandfather fought with the underground resistance but was captured by the Nazis and shipped to a concentration camp. Later, Antoine's maternal grandfather watched the battles that led to the liberation at the hands of the U.S. Army.
"He saw the arrival of the Americans," Francois said.
The experience was indelible, and generated story after story that the grandfather told his grandson as he grew up in Gerpinnes, a small town near the French border. For the young boy, it grew into a near obsession, even after he was diagnosed with cancer.
"Since he was a little child, all he talked about was the U.S.A. and the military," Francois said.
When Antoine's arm was amputated, his mother said, he insisted on forgoing strong painkillers at one point during his recovery because he'd once been inspired by a story about a U.S. soldier doing the same.
"That's hardcore," remarked a Fort Knox soldier who overheard the story Tuesday.
Antoine said when he got word that his wish was granted, he "thought it was a joke" at first, but was "extremely happy." That was evident on Tuesday as he was treated like a VIP at the sprawling post and given a range of experiences.
Lots of action
During the combat training, Antoine shot weapons and participated in a drill simulating a capture-or-kill mission of a high-value target holed up in a building.
To make it feel real, the Army brought out mine-resistant vehicles and set off an explosion that made family members jump.
"Ready?" a platoon leader asked Antoine once he was suited up. "Oui," he said.
It was all observed by his mother, his stepfather, Laurent Dullier, and sister Manon Brisbois. Antoine is a student, and Manon, who is 19, is at university studying to be a teacher. It was the first time in the U.S. for the whole family.
Antoine's experiences also include sniper training, during which he'll don a "ghillie suit," a coat of camouflage meant to resemble thick foliage; working remote-controlled explosives robots to see how bombs are disarmed; wearing a protective suit while working with military police dogs; touring Army barracks and dining halls; sampling combat rations for lunch; and firing weapons ranging from M4 riles to high-caliber machine guns.
Rounding out the visit Wednesday, he will sit in an Apache helicopter, meet post commanders and receive an honorary commission as an Army lieutenant, said Col. Ed Box, part of the Fort Knox recruiting command.
"I had only seen this in books. Now I really see," Antoine said. "I'm extremely happy."