- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

URSA, Ill. (AP) - Patrick Weppler’s easy going nature has been put to the test more than once in his life.

After graduating from high school, he had no real plans for his future.

“I wasn’t a very disciplined student,” Weppler said. “I knew I needed to do something after school. The National Guard recruiter called me, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It was probably less than a week between that call and when I went to St. Louis (for Military Entrance Processing Station or MEPS). The Guard helped me get my head on straight. It made me mature a lot.

“At the time, the Guard never got called up for anything. The last time the unit here in Quincy went to war was Vietnam. What were my chances of being called for a war? We weren’t even really fighting anyone.”

The First Gulf War had drawn to a close, and Weppler saw no other conflicts on the horizon.

“Before 9/11, there just wasn’t a sense of urgency,” he said. “After, there was a sense of the National Guard transforming more into a military unit, as opposed to a bunch of weekend warriors. Everybody took it seriously, because our lives were on the line now.”

Weppler enrolled in college while in the National Guard, but he dropped out soon after.

“I got a full-time job with the Guard in Springfield,” he said. “After 9/11, we were mobilizing troops, so I was going to mobilization stations, making sure all their pay was right. In ‘03, I got deployed myself.

“We went to Wisconsin in February for our training. Somewhere down the line plans changed, and we sat in Wisconsin until July. Then we got sent to Fort Bragg to fix airborne equipment. There were always rumors that we would be sent to Baghdad or to Kuwait. Every couple of weeks there was a new rumor, but it never really seemed real to me.”

After being deployed stateside for nine months, Weppler’s company returned to Quincy. He married his girlfriend, Leila, soon after.

“She was planning a wedding while I was deployed the first time,” he said. “We left on Valentine’s Day 2003. I proposed to her the day before.”

In 2008, he was deployed again.

“We were stationed at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait,” he said. “As a transportation company, we would take stuff from Kuwait to Iraq. I was the supply sergeant for the unit. I did all the logistical stuff and made sure we didn’t lose anything.

“I had a very specific job. I didn’t think about the danger too much. But when we got over there, the unit we were replacing, their lead truck got hit with an IED on their final mission. They were packed up and ready to go. That’s when it became real.

“I got to go on one mission. I just didn’t feel right that my friends — basically my family — were going into danger and I couldn’t do it, so I finally talked command into letting me go. I spent a week and a half on the road. It was scary, but I’d trained for it. I just drove the humvee, but there was some validation. Some people are fobits — a person who never leaves the base. My guys knew I wasn’t like that. They knew I had a job that required me to be on base, but I still wanted to experience it.”

In January 2009, Weppler returned to Quincy and tried to settle back into his life. His daughter, Isabella, 8, had been born while he was home on leave in 2008. In 2010, Weppler and his wife had another child, a boy named Jackson.

“I was on the road all the time when Jackson was a baby,” he said. “I missed a lot. When I retired (from the military), I just wanted to do something simple that didn’t require a lot of thinking, something where I would be home. All I did was load beer onto a cart, wheel it into a store, stock it and leave.

“Then Jack got sick, so I took a leave of absence.”

Jackson Weppler, 7, was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a rare liver cancer, on Oct. 30, 2012.

“I thought Jack had a hernia,” he said. “After I got off work I took him into the doctor. We were supposed to get a haircut and go to dinner after. The nurse practitioner felt around, then someone else did, and someone else did.

“They said they were going to send him to Children’s Hospital. My first thought was that we could get a haircut before we went. I can look back at it now, and everything was in slow motion. You’re moving normal, but everything around you is slowed down. There’s no protocol for this. No parent plans for this. There’s nothing in the world that ever could prepare you for this.”

Jackson underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, which proved ineffective without transplant.

“We were in Children’s Hospital from October to the end of February,” he said. “We kept pestering our oncologist and asking when he’s going to get on the list. He set us down and said the transplant team didn’t think he was eligible. He said more than likely he would have to go to hospice. He’s 3 years old.

“You can’t wrap your head around that. You get super protective, and neither of us would take no for an answer. I contacted Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. By the time we stepped off the plane in Pittsburgh, I had six different hospitals lined up. I was just going to go from city to city until I found someone that said, ‘Yes.’ “

After Jackson’s diagnosis, another Quincy child was diagnosed with a similar condition. He didn’t need a full transplant, and he also survived.

“It’s a club that you don’t want to be a part of,” he said. “Once you hear those words, ‘Your child has cancer,’ you’re a part of this club. Once we heard he had cancer, we reached out to his parents to let them know the little things that would help them out — what we did, who to call. The little things like that comfort you.

“When the first little girl we had met in Carbondale passed away, my wife and Isabella flew down for the funeral. She meant the world to us. She was just full of life, and the first day we were in the hospital, she took Jack’s hand and wanted to play.

“You know someone in the hospital has passed away, because they bring security guards up. I understand. I would have lost my mind if I would have lost Jack. I tried to stay positive, but it was on my mind all the time.”

Jackson received his new liver April 25, 2013, while in Pittsburgh. He has been cancer-free for four years.

“We got called out twice for false calls,” he said. “The livers just weren’t viable. When we got one, it was the perfect match for him. Everything lined up perfectly.

“When he was going through all this, my mom was battling cancer. As soon as he rang that bell and was cancer free, she just kind of let go. It’s like once she knew her grandson was good, she was able to pass away.”

The Wepplers recently opened a dialogue with the family of Jackson’s liver donor.

“Over the past few years, we’ve written a few letters back and forth; expressing our gratitude, letting them know how Jackson is doing,” he said. “At the beginning of April (2017), the (donor’s) sister contacted us through Facebook. We messaged back and forth. Maybe this summer, when we go back out to Pittsburgh, we’ll meet them.

“I try to put myself in their shoes. He died from meningitis in the brain, and I think to myself, in that particular moment of grief how could I say yes? Yes, harvest my son or daughter — who I love more than anything in this world — and spread those body parts all over, even when I want them whole and alive. To do that took amazing strength, and we wanted to put a face to that gift.”

Weppler is working to complete his degree in history education and is expected to graduate in spring 2019.

“There are male teachers out there, but I think there need to be more,” he said. “There need to be more positive male role models out there, and I like to think I could be that for someone. Even if it’s just one person, that’s one person’s life who was changed, and it makes the world a better place.

“When Jack was sick, our friends set up a benefit for us. The (Knights of Columbus) was just packed. Hundreds and hundreds of people. It showed me there is humanity in this world. There is good in this world. Am I going to change the world? Probably not. I’m realistic, but if we just start on a small scale, then maybe we can do something. Common human decent values — kindness and generosity. That’s very much alive in our community. I’ve witnessed it. I want to see it grow.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald Whig, https://bit.ly/2q0AzCR

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com

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