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Terminally Ill 7-Year-Old Becomes Honorary Marine

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

When Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Gillette and his wife Felishia learned that their 7-year-old son Wyatt would receive the title of Honorary Marine, they had a moment to celebrate amidst weeks of sadness. Wyatt, in the last days of his short but meaningful life, would join the ranks of the few and the proud, and like his father, become a Marine.

Being diagnosed as an infant with a rare genetic condition known as Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome with the Trex1 mutation (AGS1) meant Wyatt’s life was destined for bravery and courage. The early diagnosis was difficult for the Gillettes; with the answers to their then-infant son’s chronic health problems also came the knowledge that his life expectancy was far shorter than any parent could imagine. Of the children diagnosed with AGS1, 25 percent die before the age of 17. Wyatt’s doctors predicted he wouldn’t live beyond his seventh birthday. Already, he’d proven himself a warrior.

Children who have AGS1 struggle with health issues such as diabetes, seizures, body temperature regulation, cerebral palsy and more. Many of these children, like Wyatt, live in a persistent vegetative state because of the condition.

Photograph by Facebook

Through every hospitalization (and there were many) Felishia and Jeremiah championed for their son, making sure he was continuously surrounded by love, friendship, and his favorite: lots and lots of kisses. Although Wyatt could not speak, it was clear that he could communicate with sighs, smiles and the undeniable light that sparkled in his eyes whenever his parents and beloved friends were near.

Wyatt was admitted to the hospital in Orange County June 15 for a fever and possible infection. Soon, the doctors discovered that Wyatt’s kidneys were failing, and so they spent the next six weeks attempting to save his life. He endured weeks of dialysis, in the hopes that his kidney function would return. Finally, the Gillettes were given the news no parent wants to hear—their beautiful son, the light and joy of their lives, was not going to survive.

Wyatt’s pre-existing condition meant he was not a candidate for a life-saving kidney transplant and that eventually, they would have to stop the dialysis that kept him alive. On July 27, after six long weeks in the hospital, Wyatt was sent home on hospice care to spend his remaining days surrounded by friends and family.

Even still, his mother shared her undeniable hope that something would miraculously change. Wyatt had come close to the brink before and somehow, like a Marine, managed to fight for his survival. Accepting his fate didn’t come easy for his parents.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

A movement had quietly spread across the internet to recognize Wyatt’s bravery. On July 21, a change.org petition, signed by thousands, asked General Robert B. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps to designate Wyatt as an Honorary Marine—a title given to fewer than 100 people since the program began in 1992. Eventually, the petition reached news channels across the country. The quiet push was now a broadcasted roar, bringing much needed attention to Wyatt’s nomination.

The day Wyatt was released from the hospital to begin hospice care, his family learned Wyatt would become the 92nd person to hold the title Honorary Marine. It was a bittersweet moment for the Gillettes and for all who knew Wyatt’s story.

On July 30 at the School of Infantry parade deck aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, Wyatt, dressed in military fatigues, was presented with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, the official emblem of the Marine Corps, as well as a beautiful framed certificate documenting the momentous occasion.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

Wyatt’s father, an active duty Staff Sergeant of the Marines, spoke at the end of the ceremony, thanking everyone for their outpouring of love and support during their son’s final days.

“I especially want to thank my wife, Felishia,” Gillette said. “She’s taken amazing care of our son throughout his life and she really is the perfect mom.”

Back at home, the Gillette’s shared that they did not want to spend their last moments with Wyatt in tears. “We can cry later,” Felishia said. “Right now, we want to be happy. Wyatt loves nothing more than smiling and laughing, and that’s what we’re going to give him.”

The love, honor, courage and commitment of this family is exemplary for all, not just those who serve the Marine Corps. As they experience an unimaginable loss, they’ve openly and graciously shared their son with the world so everyone can know his joyous spirit. A true Marine, Wyatt managed to demonstrate the kind of courage very few can muster, and never stopped smiling.

Sadly, on July 31, 2016, at 10:06 am, just one day after joining the brotherhood of Marines, Wyatt Gillette died from kidney failure at home with his parents by his side. His memory, however, will live forever on in the hearts of those who knew and loved him.

Donations are currently being accepted to help the Gillette family cover the cost of Wyatt's funeral. You can donate here.

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