Resiliency in the midst of the reaper

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony

Resiliency in the midst of the reaper

by Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith
18th Wing Public Affairs

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Born into a military family, U.S. Air Force Capt. Cole Holloway was destined to follow both his mother and father’s footsteps into the U.S. Air Force – more specifically, to follow his father’s aviation path and become a pilot.

Surrounded by Air Force aviators as role models, Holloway grew up being influenced by every type of pilot thinkable – from heavies to helicopters, his mentors flew everything imaginable.

“I grew up around airplanes – I didn’t think of anything else for my life … that’s what I was going to do from the time I could make words come out of my mouth,” Holloway said. “My dad flew, so as soon as he could get me in an airplane, I was flying.”

As time went on, his dream developed into something more ambitious – he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Holloway met his goal and accomplished his dream job – he successfully became a fighter pilot in the Air Force and ended up at Kadena Air Base, Japan, with the 67th Fighter Squadron, behind the stick of an F-15C Eagle.

“The simple act of flying tactically with your bros in an incredibly advanced death machine is simultaneously the most nerve-wracking, exhilarating, painful and joyous experience you could have in your life,” Holloway explained. “It’s everything wrapped into one.”

With moments of unbridled joy, anxious frustration, hours of tiresomeness followed by seconds of intensity, Holloway describes being a fighter pilot as the perfect combination of being a jock and nerd. Although he could talk for hours about the difficulties of his dream job, for him, the fun far exceeds any challenges he may face.

But, early into his thrilling career, his dream came to a screeching halt.

“I knew something was wrong when I started developing some slight muscle weakness in my left hand,” Holloway said. “I do a lot of things throughout everyday life that requires my left hand – even in the jet, there’s a lot of fine motor skills in the left hand that you need – typing, playing video games … kind of cued me in to something weird with my hand; I started being like ‘something’s weird with my body; it’s not doing the normal stuff I expect it to do.’”

As time went on, his symptoms progressed.

“That coupled with the muscle weakness and like 12 other symptoms I started piecing together … I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but you have a feeling and then by that point you go to the doctor – the diagnosis works itself out,” he said.

In October of 2018, Holloway was given a diagnosis -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known as ALS.

“I clearly knew Cole had been going to the doctor … there was something wrong,” Holloway’s wife, Meghan Holloway said. “We had gone to Hawaii to get his official second opinion and diagnosis, so when we came back from that, I knew something was not right, because when things are good, people will tell you things are good.”

Holloway had to tell his wife.

“We sat right here on this couch and he just started with ‘this is clearly not good news,’ and gave me the spiel that there’s nothing any of us can do about what has happened and the cards are the way they are,” Meghan recalled. “In that moment, I was just like, ‘keep talking to me, I just need more information; everything you know, I want to know.’”

ALS is a motor neuron disease that affects one’s ability to move as well as some cognitive abilities. The progressive degenerative disease affects the nerve cells in the brain as well as the spinal cord. Whether it be genetic or environmental, there is no known cause or cure – it eventually leads to death.

As what some would still consider newlyweds, the couple’s life together was now set to be drastically different.

After dating briefly in high school, the pair reunited nearly seven years later. Upon reconnecting, the couple’s love moved on the fast track, paving the way to what they thought would be forever, only to now be under a time-constraint.

“If someone would’ve told me two years earlier I would reconnect with Cole Holloway and then immediately marry him and then move across the country – and then across the world with him, I’d be like, ‘you’re crazy,’” Meghan laughed, “But somehow the stars aligned.”

Considering the devastation of the news, Meghan remained unwavering.

“Not to say it was easy or anything, but overall I think I reacted better than he thought I would,” she said. “I think him being open from the get-go helped me digest it a lot more; it’s kind of strange to say, but he came well-prepared. He was my pillar in that moment – he had meticulously wrapped this awful gift to hand over to me and did it with such grace that it was actually something I could digest in that moment.”

As part of coping, Meghan immediately went into action and started planning for the upcoming changes in their lives.

“Weirdly enough, I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m just ready to hit the ground running and kick ass with him … do all of the crazy things we were going to do in the span of 50 years – now we’re doing it in the span of two years.”

The couple plans to travel, experience life and make the most of the unknown time they have left together.

“I’m going to hangout with my family and friends and make the most of the time I have left on earth,” Holloway said. “Most people live two to five years after their diagnosis. We’re hoping it’s longer than that, but obviously there’s no cure for it so, it is what it is; the cards have been dealt and I can’t do anything aside from look at them and bet however I may.”

While both Meghan and Holloway have taken the news fairly well, they’re already seeing changes in their lives because of it. Not only has it affected Holloway physically, but mentally as well – maybe for the better.

“It has changed what I can do and how I interact with the world,” he said. “My legacy going from this point on is to be a good friend, a good husband, a good family member and somebody who just enjoyed their time with the people they were around.”

As a fighter pilot, thinking about the eventuality of death has actually better equipped him to handle his terminal illness.

“Ultimately, I’m neutral about the whole thing because I believe I’ve prepared myself well for the eventuality of death, as weird as that may sound,” Holloway sighed. “When something like this happens, it’s going to affect you, but not nearly as much as it could somebody who hasn’t put aside an hour of their life to think about their own mortality. So mentally, I am even stronger than I was before this.”

For Meghan, it’s taken some of the seriousness out of life.

“Small problems are small problems and everyone has them – just let them remain small,” she said. “It’s more important now than ever; when you have a shortened timeline, you shouldn’t waste your time worrying about the little stuff.”

On top of the whirlwind it created for his personal life, the diagnosis also impacted his professional life. Getting diagnosed with ALS means he’s no longer able to fly and that he would be medically retiring.

“Now that I accomplished my dream it’s kind of like a double-edged sword – I accomplished my dream but there’s still so much to do past getting the title of being a fighter pilot … being an Eagle driver,” Holloway said. “Ultimately it kind of left a sour taste in my mouth knowing there’s a lot left on the table.”

In an already difficult time, Holloway was faced with even more hardship – does he tell his mother about his diagnosis?

His mother was previously diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that spread through her body and eventually to her brain, making Holloway uncertain whether burdening her with bad news was something he should do.

“The situation is exactly as it reads out – my mom’s got an aggressive terminal illness and I have one that’s maybe not as aggressive, but certainly just as terminal,” he said. “Everyone who is important to you, you have to tell them; the other end of that is my mom has this ticking time bomb of a grim reaper standing with his arm on her shoulder.”

With his mother’s timeline ever-present in his mind, Holloway decided not to tell her that her youngest son is also going to die from a terminal illness.

“When you make that decision, you just press with that decision and compartmentalize it in your brain and with your psyche and you go forward,” he explained. “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.”

Despite the obvious downside of his diagnosis, Holloway has found some positives to focus on.

“My silver lining in this experience is knowing that I could’ve been born in 1920s Soviet Union and had a one in five chance of making it to my 25th birthday, but instead I was born in 21st century America,” he said, “I got to meet this crazy, awesome, beautiful wife of mine, I got to fly the coolest jet that man has ever created with the best bros you could ever ask for … in my short little life I’ve gotten to do some awesome things and I can reflect on that and be happy.”

The diagnosis has brought on several realizations for Holloway and who he is as a person. This life changing experience has helped him recognize who he wants to be and how he wants to be remembered – however difficult it may be.

“My favorite quote is ‘be the man that others can rely on at your father’s funeral,’” he explained. “That means in times of dire consequence, be a pillar of strength – but the problem with this is, it’s not my father’s funeral, it’s my own. I’m trying to be this person people can rely on when they know the bad news is happening to me.”

He’s realized there’s so much more to life that defines him outside of being a fighter pilot.

“Obviously, becoming a fighter pilot takes a lot of effort and time, but if you took that away from me, what am I,” Holloway asked. “Hopefully what you still have is a good dude, a good husband, a good brother, son, and friend. It’s liberating for me personally because I realize my family still loves me, my friends are still cool with me … I’ve still got a lot to add.”

Throughout the shattering news and various trials, the couple seems to harbor no negativity and has found the diagnosis liberating in a sense.

“You’re defeated but there’s no one to be upset at; we can’t be upset at one another, we can’t be upset at the world and that’s weirdly freeing,” Meghan explained. “I hope that in the time we have together, we do whatever this guy wants to do, which is terrifying … the part I’m most scared about is following this crazy train around the world,” she laughed, “because the sense of freedom we’ve been talking about, also gives [him] no fear.”

Since the diagnosis, Holloway has gained new perspectives on life, and has fully embraced resiliency – something of high value to the Air Force.

“Resiliency to me is thinking about everything you did … you did as best as you could and everything else is left up to this crazy thing we call life,” he said. “Resiliency is taking solace in doing the damn best you can and letting it play out as it may.”

Meghan has also taken on a like-minded mentality and hopes to be able to inspire people to value what they have and to carry on the legacy of her husband.

“A lot of people will look at our situation and think, ’that’s so sad,’ but for us, it’s like we get to live life through a lens that a lot of other people don’t,” Meghan said through tears. “I hope more people listen to our story and take that as a lesson that things around you can change in the drop of a hat and who you build yourself to be before things like that happen is so important. We have an amazing outlook on life because of this situation and we're going to live richer and fuller.”

Photo Caption:
U.S. Air Force Capt. Cole Holloway a pilot from the 67th Fighter Squadron, stands in front of an F-15C Eagle Dec. 14, 2018, on Kadena Air Base, Japan. After following in his father’s footsteps and accomplishing his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, Holloway found out he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Despite his terminal illness and being medically retired from the Air Force, Holloway maintains a positive outlook and is looking forward to the next chapter in his life.

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