Master Sgt. Alexander Barnett, left, 14-year-old Riley Woina, center, and Jose Marengo race into a vacant building during a drill with the Army Rangers on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at Camp J. Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Make-A-Wish Foundation enabled the trip to the camp for the boy, who has cystic fibrosis. Riley joined the Rangers flying in helicopters, riding in zodiac boats and watching an airborne jump. (Mari Darr-Welch / The Associated Press)
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EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Weakened by his lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis, 14-year-old Riley Woina dreams of being strong like the war heroes he watches in movies.
The Army's 6th Ranger Training Battalion on Eglin Air Force Base recently helped him realize this unusual dream.
Susan Woina joked that her son could have taken his Plymouth, Conn., family to Walt Disney World or gone on a shopping spree through the Make-A-Wish Foundation instead of spending a week crawling in the mud with soldiers in the Florida Panhandle.
"You always want what you cannot have and he'll never be able to join the Army because of his cystic fibrosis, so of course he wants that more than anyone else would. He would join the Army today if he could," she said.
The family has no connection to the military, except through the many war movies Riley loves to watch. Inspired by his favorite movies, "Black Hawk Down" and the HBO World War II series "Band of Brothers," he researched Ranger training and learned about 6th Ranger Training Battalion.
Riley said he couldn't think of anything better — not even visiting a chocolate factory — than seeing Camp James E. Rudder, where Rangers face their final and most difficult training challenges.
"I knew I probably wouldn't be able to do anything like this again. They do everything down here, the swamp training, everything," he said, while eating with his new Ranger buddies in the chow hall.
And the 80-pound 14-year-old, weakened by his degenerative illness, said he doesn't feel any sympathy for the physical punishment Rangers experience for 18 days at Camp Rudder.
"It's a way of life for them; they are the ones that signed up for it so it's their fault," he said to the chuckles of the Rangers around him.
What he likes most about the Rangers: "Their determination to leave no man behind."
Cystic fibrosis causes a buildup of thick mucus that makes breathing difficult and inhibits absorption of nutrients, stunting growth. Riley takes nutritional supplements and respiratory medications, uses an inhaler, and sleeps with a special vest that helps to shake up and clear out the mucus in his lungs while he sleeps.
Riley is the first child to ask Make-A-Wish to visit a Ranger camp, said Capt. Jeremiah Cordovano, spokesman for 6th Ranger Battalion.
"Because this is what we do on a daily basis, we forget what it is like to be a kid. What it is like the first time you jump out of an airplane, fire a weapon; it is great to watch his face light up," said Cordovano, who helped arrange for Riley to ride in a helicopter, traverse the swamps with Rangers in an inflatable Zodiac boat and witness a 64-paratrooper night jump from inside a C-130.
And Riley, accompanied by his parents and 17-year-old brother, gave a boost to some war-weary combat veterans.
Sgt. Jon Desrosiers recently returned from Iraq where he supported the 82nd Airborne Division as a helicopter medic.
He flew from Fort Polk, La., on what he thought would be part of a routine training support mission for Camp Rudder. Desrosiers later learned that his flight crew would take Riley on a ride over Fort Walton Beach.
"I've seen a lot of things in Iraq and this was something fun," he said.
The crew presented Riley with his own flight suit, a "U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment" patch, and his pilot's wings.
They also helped him to radio his mom from the helicopter while hovering above the beach.
"Mom, this is Riley. This is awesome," he said.
"Riley, I'm glad you're having a good time," she said.
The Rangers joked with Riley about his fondness for the flight suit, telling him he had to take it off before he joined them to practice jump training inside a mock C-130 aircraft frame. The Rangers had earlier presented him with personalized fatigues, complete with his own combat boots and dog tags.
The Rangers showed Riley how to deploy a parachute and a reserve parachute. As his parents and older brother, Ryan, laughed at Riley's enthusiasm, Master Sgts. Jose Morengo and Alexander Barnett rolled on the ground, jumped off benches and unfurled the parachutes.
Even a black eye, which happened as Morengo pulled the rip cord grip on a reserve parachute that he strapped around Riley's waist, didn't keep Riley from smiling. Morengo gave Riley the rip cord grip as a souvenir, explaining that it was the ultimate trophy of surviving a harrowing experience.
And the day got better when the men let him shoot blank M4 rounds and help clear a training room using grenade simulators. He then watched dozens of Ranger students practice being lifted in and out of helicopters on ropes.
Ranger training lasts 62 days and Camp Rudder is the final phase.
"We provide the most realistic combat scenarios and they are the most decimated when they get to us," Cordovano said. "They are lacking sleep and food. You really get to see what you are made of and if you have what it takes to be a combat leader."
Riley will join the successful Ranger students at Fort Benning, Ga., for their graduation ceremonies March 9, where he will get to ride in a tank and shoot live rounds.
Barnett, a 17-year veteran Ranger instructor who accompanied Riley at the camp, said the teen has the mental toughness to be a Ranger.
"He has the intestinal fortitude. Because of his medical condition, he's tough," Barnett said. "I was shocked he asked to do this. He's from Connecticut, he's a city boy. He could have asked to go the Super Bowl. I have a touchy moment every day with him."
"He's got nothing to prove to us; he's tough enough."