When he was in kindergarten, little Ethan Hobbs was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Ethan's wish - "to be a real GI Joe," his week-long military career and his homecoming parade through downtown Thomson was televised on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.
Although that was eight years ago, a tape of the news show and Ethan's wish was the topic of a presentation at the Thomson Rotary Club recently.
"It is truly remarkable what the town of Thomson did on a very short notice," Jimmy Carson, of CSRA Make-A-Wish, said in his presentation. "When Ethan came home, there were folks lining the streets holding up signs, businesses had yellow ribbons everywhere, he had a motorcade travel through downtown with police and fire escorts with their sirens, and his entire school was out waving flags. Kudos to the city for what they did to celebrate this young man and welcome him home."
Today, 12-year-old Ethan is a retired staff sergeant from the U.S. Army and is about to enter the seventh grade at Thomson-McDuffie Middle School.
His mother, Judy Hobbs, was thrilled when she heard from friends about the Rotary presentation.
"Several people told me they actually saw the news reel for the first time at Rotary, so that's cool," Mrs. Hobbs said. "It was cool that we were followed by NBC that week. And Make-A-Wish is an awesome, awesome organization. It was a wonderful week for our family. We had fun and we have memories, but we also still have Ethan. But, there's a lot of families who have wonderful memories of their wish trip and that's all they have. They don't have their child with them anymore."
Mr. Carson said the Wish process begins with a referral from doctors or social workers.
"We never solicit wishes," he said, adding that the organization has ways of figuring out what a child's wish is, and ensuring that it is truly the wish of the child and not that of someone in the child's family.
But, there was no problem figuring out what Ethan's wish was.
"It's something I've always really, really wanted to do," Ethan said last week. "My mama said I've studied it since I could read. It was fun."
"Wishes are only limited by a child's imagination," Mr. Carson said, "However, there are some restrictions." The child's medical staff is involved with the planning of the wishes because each child's condition varies and their safety is a priority. And, there are boundaries to ensure the organization is not being taken advantage of.
"We don't do anything that requires a building permit, such as remodeling a house. We don't do swimming pools and we don't do guns," Mr. Carson said. "And we don't give or allow a child to drive any type of motorized vehicles."
For his wish, Ethan, his parents, his older brothers Ben and Jordan, and his younger sister, Elizabeth, experienced boot camp, Ranger training and Airborne school at Fort Benning in Columbus. The next day, they drove Humvee and tank simulators at Fort Stuart, Savannah. The third day, they trained with the MP K-9 unit at Fort Gordon in Augusta.
In a private ceremony attended by Thomson's mayor, a state senator and other officials, Ethan was presented his discharge papers honorably releasing him from his military service at the end of the week, according to Make-A-Wish reports.
"Make-A-Wish is quite an organization," Mrs. Hobbs said. "They got his wish in motion. But, when the Army found out about it, the Army made his wish what it was. Make-A-Wish planned a lot of really fun stuff for him. But, the men and women at the bases added to it and it was just phenomenal, just unbelievable."
Although he goes for yearly followups at the Children's Medical Center and attends Camp Rainbow every summer, Ethan said he really doesn't think about having cancer. But memories of the wish trip have fed his dream of a career in military service.
"I'd like to be a sniper, or in the Navy Seals, or driving tanks, or maybe a paratrooper," he said.
This is in spite of the fact that he has no close family members in the military. His father, Mike, is a McDuffie County Sheriff's sergeant first class and his mother is a secretary with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Thomson.
"I thought about being SWAT, because that's like the military except you get to stay in one town," Ethan said.
Ethan and his family still stay in contact with their guide from the wish trip and they still talk about the experience. Ethan has gone on the internet to learn more about the equipment, drills and weapons he experienced during the trip.
"Some stuff, I didn't know what I was doing. But, now that I'm older, I understand what I was doing. So, I'd like to try it again," he said. "I didn't shoot the 50 caliber machine gun, but my dad did, and we brought the shells home and I have them on a shelf. I'd like to try it now. I liked the ranger training and riding in the tanks, and I really liked the museum."
After Ethan's story appeared on NBC, he received a shipment of every GI Joe action figure from Hasbro, his parents served as spokespersons for the Make-A-Wish fundraising campaign kick-off, and Ethan was pictured on the cover of the Make-A-Wish magazine. Mr. Carson passed out copies of the old magazine to the Rotary members when he made the presentation.
"I knew about Make-A-Wish, but I didn't understand how good it was until they helped Ethan," said Kim Bragg, immediate past-president of Thomson's Rotary Club.