Since the age of 4, Neil Sawh has wanted to be a soldier.
“I don’t know how he became so interested in the military,” said Nelini Sawh, his mother. “The Army must be what he was born to do.”
Now 9 years old, Neil is still adamant he will be a soldier one day. He checks out books about World War II from his school’s library. The fourth-grader has dressed as a soldier twice for Halloween and recruits his nearly 3-year-old sister, Anissa, to conduct reconnaissance missions for him.
“He’s very patriotic, very interested in the Army,” his mother said.
On his 18th birthday, he doesn’t want a party, he wants to go enlist, Nelini Sawh said.
None of Neil’s immediate family are in the Army and, living in Houston, he doesn’t see soldiers on a daily basis. Regardless, most of his toys are Army toys and he knows the difference between a Chinook and a Black Hawk, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a tank.
But two years ago Neil was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and about three months ago, he lost his ability to walk.
“He is convinced he will be able to go into the Army in his wheelchair,” Nelini Sawh said. “He said they’ll build a Humvee to go around his wheelchair.”
On Friday, Neil’s dream came true as he was made an honorary sergeant and deputy commander of 1st “GarryOwen” Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
“Oh my goodness, I cried when I heard about all the things they were doing today,” his mother said. “They were tears of joy, because I know how much he loved this and to be a part of this.”
In an enlistment ceremony, Neil donned dog tags and an Army Combat Uniform top with the division’s patches and repeated the oath of enlistment from Lt. Col. Jay Miseli, squadron commander.
“We wanted to make sure it was a day he would never forget,” Miseli said. “I wanted him to feel connected with soldiers.”
To do so, Miseli invited Neil and his family out to the GarryOwen Games, a monthly event where the squadron’s troops compete against each other in a physical competition. Friday’s event was a timed course through an urban training ground while carrying a tank round.
As Apache Troop took off through the course, Neil yelled and cheered them on. Miseli pushed his wheelchair around the rocky terrain and explained different military terms and history to him.
“(Neil) reminds me why it’s such a privilege to lead this squadron today,” Miseli said. “He reminds me how much regard fellow citizens show soldiers.”
After his enlistment, soldiers showered Neil with warm wishes and gifts, including a Stetson, Expert Infantryman Badge and a 1st Cavalry Division patch.
“It’s the first patch I got when I deployed,” said Spc. Jordan Ehpel of passing it on to Neil. “I felt proud when I was given that, so I wanted him to have it.”
Ehpel said he was once like Neil, deciding to join the Army around age 10 after watching soldiers in movies.
Neil’s parents plan to hang some of the gifts on the walls of his room and put the rest in a scrapbook for him.
The day also included a stop at the 1st Cavalry Division Museum and an MRE lunch on the ramp of a Bradley.
While Neil was quiet during most of the day’s events, his dad, Navin Sawh, said he knew he would be talking about the trip the whole way home.
“He’s absorbing everything,” he said. “This is definitely the highlight of our lives to date. I thought when I got married it would be the best thing, but this beats it. Seeing him so happy and being here. ... I can’t think of any words right now to express myself.”
And as happy as everyone was Friday, Nelini Sawh knows there will be many hard days in Neil’s future.
Muscular dystrophy continually weakens the body’s muscles over time, and despite being able to walk just three months ago, now Neil can only stand for about as long as it takes to brush his teeth.
She tries to ask him what else he wants to be when he grows up, but he tells her if he can’t be a soldier, he’ll do nothing.
“I try to teach him anything is possible even if he’s in a wheelchair. With all the research out there, you never know, there might be a cure. I tell him to never give up,” Nelini Sawh said. “If I teach him that, then I have to be optimistic for him.”
Navin Sawh said despite everything, Neil has always remained in high spirits. “He’s in school with his friends. ... He wants to do everything a normal kid would want to do,” he said.
Neil said when he gets home, he knows exactly what he will tell his friends first: “I’m in the Army.”
Contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.