Swanton, Ohio --
In April, 2016, 22-year old Whitehouse, Ohio native, Ashleigh Hunt, waited for results of her latest scans, anticipating similar results to her January scans showing no new growth of her lung tumors.
The news was not good. The scans showed a new large tumor pressing against a major artery and her spine which would require yet another round of intensive chemotherapy to shrink the tumor enough so it could be safely removed. Additional scans showed other potential tumors on both lungs and around her heart.
The cancer was back, for the third time in less than three years and it was growing fast. This time the diagnosis was terminal.
In August, 2013, at the age of 19, Hunt was an ordinary college student attending The Ohio State University, pursuing her degree in early childhood education and her dreams of graduating, getting a place of her own, teaching and one day starting a family of her own, when she began suffering from pain and swelling in her left knee.
Assuming it was tendinitis, much like the diagnosis of her right knee several years before, Hunt and her family were speechless when they learned she had a six-inch tumor appearing to be bone cancer.
After several appointments with orthopedic oncologists and even more tests over the next couple of weeks, Hunt was diagnosed with high-grade osteosarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer, most prominent in children and young adults, and only diagnosed about 400 times each year in patients between the ages of 10 and 30.
Adding to the already devastating diagnosis, additional tests concluded that the cancer had already spread to both of Hunt’s lungs, upgrading her diagnosis to stage IV.
In September, Hunt began a year-long treatment plan to stop the cancer from spreading, including 10 weeks of intensive chemotherapy, resulting in six weeks of in-patient treatments. She then underwent surgery to have the tumor in her knee removed, followed by an additional 20 weeks of chemo and more tests to ensure the cancer had not spread to other areas of her body. In May, 2014, Hunt’s oncologist declared that she was finally in remission.
Celebrating one year in remission May 25, 2015, Ashleigh gave her Facebook supporters an exciting update on her post-cancer life.
“I have been in remission for one year. Wow! One year! A lot can happen in one year, and a lot has happened in one year,” said Hunt. “I’ve gone on my first road trip with my best friend. I’ve gone back to school and have gotten straight A’s the whole year for the first time in a long time! I’ve joined a small group with some of my friends. I’ve gotten my first job!”
The celebration didn’t last long. Just four months after celebrating one year of being cancer free, Hunt went in for regularly scheduled scans to monitor for potential regrowth of cancerous cells. The scans showed a tumor in her lungs. The cancer was back and growing quickly. Surgery to remove the tumor and another round of chemo was required to prevent it from spreading.
Good news came again in January, 2016, with scans showing no signs of regrowth, but the celebration ended quickly in April with the new scans and devastating, terminal diagnosis.
“Ashleigh has been so strong, and I know that is for me,” said Hunt’s mom, Jodi Rupp. “I believe reality is starting to hit her. My mom’s heart is ripping in two. I would do anything. I don’t want her to be strong for me. That is my job.”
After learning the shattering diagnosis, with help of her family and friends, Hunt decided to make a bucket list in an effort to fulfill as many of her dreams as possible. Her list included graduating college, learning how to apply make-up, seeing concerts, even a ride in a fighter jet.
Too old to be part of the Make-A-Wish program, Hunt’s family and friends set out to help check items off of her bucket list. Her grandfather reached out to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, to see if there was a possibility Hunt would be able to ride in one of the unit’s F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Though her health did not allow her to meet the minimum requirements for a flight in a high-performance fighter jet, the 180FW jumped at the chance to support Hunt and her bucket list dreams in any way possible. A small team of 180FW Airmen worked with Hunt’s family to surprise her with an all access day at the unit by making her a pilot for a day.
On May 26, 2016, Hunt was prepared for a short tour at the 180FW, but had no idea what was really about to happen.
Partnering with the U.S. Army Reserve’s 983rd Engineer Battalion, in Swanton, Ohio, to make the day even more special, Hunt was greeted at 8:30 a.m. by two of the battalion’s Humvees – her ride for the day.
Hunt rode shotgun in the lead Humvee with her family following behind, a true Army convoy with the second Humvee trailing, to the 180FW where the unit’s electronic sign proudly welcomed 2nd. Lt. Ashleigh Hunt.
Once at the 180FW, Hunt was ushered into the Aircrew Flight Equipment shop where she was issued a flight suit, boots and her very own U.S. Air Force name badge before being escorted to the pilot training room filled with 180FW Airmen waiting to watch Hunt be sworn into the Ohio Air National Guard as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
180FW Commander, Col. Craig Baker, greeted Hunt and her family before issuing the oath of enlistment and explained to her the responsibilities in her role as an officer in America’s Armed Forces.
While Hunt was all smiles, her family was misty-eyed, she raised her right hand and stated, “I, Ashleigh Hunt, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Ohio against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the Governor of the State of Ohio, that I make this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of 2ndLt. in the Air National Guard of the State of Ohio on which I am about to enter, so help me God.”
Following the enlistment ceremony and the signing of her official enlistment papers, Hunt met the pilot, Lt. Col. Keith Kelly, who would be flying in her honor that day. Kelly explained his training mission for the flight, presented Hunt with an official set of Department of Defense dog tags, and exchanged name tags so he could fly as 2nd Lt. Ashleigh Hunt.
After Kelly departed to finalize flight plans, Hunt and Maj. Brian Cherolis, an F-16 pilot with the 180FW and her escort for the day, headed out to the aircraft ramp where Hunt assisted with preflight inspections on the F-16 Kelly would fly that day, an F-16 that had 2nd Lt. Ashleigh Hunt proudly displayed on its side as the dedicated pilot. With the help of aircraft mechanic, Master Sgt. Kathryn Dohrmann, Hunt performed aircraft launching procedures, complete with a salute as Kelly taxied to the runway.
Members of the 180FW Fire and Emergency Services Department arrived to take Hunt on a high-speed ride down the taxiway to a spot alongside of the runway where she had a front row seat to watch her F-16 take-off before heading to lunch.
Already a day filled with one happy surprise after another, lunch with Hunt’s family and several 180FW Airmen proved to be another unexpected, yet emotional surprise.
Waiting for Hunt at local 180FW lunch spot, dressed in a flight suit, was Lt. Col. Becky Ohm, the Ohio Air National Guard’s first female fighter pilot, who was also undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
As Hunt and Ohm sat side-by-side, sharing their stories, struggles and successes through laughter and tears, it was a touching site for all in attendance as well as those passing by.
Back at the 180FW, Ohm spent the rest of the afternoon by Hunt’s side as Kelly conducted a mission debrief with Hunt and her family and as unit members presented her with mementos from throughout the day and her time as a pilot assigned to the 180FW.
Making it a day to remember, the wing presented Hunt with a framed print of her official military photo and Lt. Col. Kelly presented Hunt with an American Flag, which he flew oh his mission in her honor, as a symbol of her bravery and true American patriotism as an officer in the U. S. Air Force.
Ending the day with the most touching presentation of all, Ohm gave Hunt a set of her official pilot wings as a symbol of inspiration and a reminder that anything is possible and that even the biggest dreams can come true.
“I am so excited! This is awesome. I never would have dreamed this!” Hunt said.
“I could not ask for better people in my life,” Hunt continued. “They’re amazing and I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.”
“I don’t even have words for it. It’s amazing the people that have jumped up and opened themselves up to helping her out and making her life great,” said her mother, Jodi Rupp.
Through it all, Hunt has been a symbol of bravery and inspiration to anyone she meets, especially to the men and women of the 180FW, who had the distinct honor to spend the day with such a strong, bright and happy young lady.
“Ashleigh showed us all the strength and resilience of the human spirit when faced with adversity,” said Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes, a member of the 180FW. “It was an honor to help her check off an item from her bucket list.”
Since her visit, still fighting to recover and powering through a few minor set-backs from time to time, Hunt continues to make the most of life, traveling the country completing her list, one item at a time, with help from family, friends, her community and some of her most special supporters like singer, Justin Timberlake and NASCAR driver Joey Logano, who both helped with her trip to New York City.
Over the summer, Hunt has had professional make-up lessons, traveled to Ney York City to see the Broadway plays Wicked and Cats, traveled to Hawaii and California, attended some of her favorite concerts and even got to be part of Logano’s NASCAR pit crew.
“We believe you get more than you give when you serve others, and Ashleigh’s visit certainly proved that,” Reed said. “Her attitude, strength, and courage lifted everyone around her during her visit. It was a privilege to share the day with her.”
For updates on Hunt or how you can help her accomplish her bucket list, visit her Facebook page @Prayers for Ashleigh, Fighting Osteo Sarcoma