Skip to main content

Boy who lost Army dad inspires help for other kids

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 12:21 PM EST, Fri March 2, 2012
Braydon Nichols, right, lost his father Bryan Nichols last year.
Braydon Nichols, right, lost his father Bryan Nichols last year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boy posted iReport to fallen Army father last summer
  • People have constantly asked: How is Braydon Nichols doing?
  • He's performing well in school and has fun summer plans, his uncle said
  • Other kids who lost parents are receiving help from Special Operations Warrior Foundation

(CNN) -- Last August, a 10-year-old boy from Missouri wrote an iReport to CNN. Braydon Nichols asked that the world not forget his father, an Army officer who died when the helicopter he and other soldiers were in was downed in Afghanistan.

The grade-schooler's iReport sparked a massive outpouring of love, encouragement and empathy. Thousands of people posted comments to the boy. Nearly 230 iReports were dedicated to him.

No one would forget Army Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols, everyone pledged.

And over the past six months, CNN's audience has not forgotten Braydon. There has been no let-up in comments online asking how the boy is doing and wishing him well.

This week, "Dennis" wrote that he keeps on his computer a picture that CNN published of Braydon and his father wearing matching military uniforms. "Take care buddy, be strong ..."

In February, "Kenny" wrote, "For some reason you popped in mind tonight. I hope you are doing well, hope the school year is going good. Take care little bud." (Read more of the original iReport)

Those notes mean a lot to Braydon, his uncle Monte Nichols said.

"We've had people from across the world reach out to us. It's been incredible for the whole family to know that people do care," Nichols told CNN this week. "Braydon is doing really well in school. I think he's making his way as best as any kid could considering the circumstances."

Braydon is excited about his summer vacation plans. A generous person in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is paying for the boy and his mother Jessica Nichols to fly to the city, tour a chocolate factory and have a fun weekend.

Still, Braydon has good and bad days.

This month is going to be tough for the family because Bryan Nichols was due home from deployment in March.

Last year, weeks before that horrible August morning that she had to tell her son that his father was gone, Jessica Nichols recalled how Braydon loved to fantasize giddily about how he and his dad were going camping when he finished fighting bad guys. The self-assured and computer savvy boy was a miniature Bryan Nichols. Their short, spiky blonde hair was styled the same. They both loved to quiz each other with random trivia. The kid adored his dad.

"Bryan is with us all the time, every day his memory is alive for us. It's hard," Monte Nichols said. "But it's just as hard for all the families and the kids who lost their parents on that helicopter. Those children, just like Braydon, need to be taken care of."

It turns out, they are.

After CNN's story appeared, and donations poured in to a college trust fund for Braydon, another group of soldiers and retired military members went to work to try to figure out what they could do.

There were 32 children who lost a parent in the Chinook tragedy, and two of the wives of the men on board were pregnant, said retired Air Force Maj. Steve McLeary, the executive director of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. The Tampa, Florida-based organization has been providing scholarships and assistance to kids and families of special operations personnel since 1980. Read more about the Foundation and what it provides

Most of those on the Chinook were special operations. But five families who lost loved ones on the helicopter were Army and not in Special Operations, McLeary said.

"We saw the CNN story and within 15 minutes we were on a call with board members who all agreed that every child who lost a parent on that helicopter would have their college expenses covered by us, whether their parents were special operations or not," McLeary said. (Tributes to the Chinook crash victims)

The foundation first sent all five of the Army families money -- about $10,000 each -- to cover expenses of traveling to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to attend funerals, and to cover other expenses related to the tragedy. The foundation, which is funded by individual and corporate donations, worked with other charities to help pay for hotels for relatives who wanted to attend memorials.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation is covering all college tuition and room and board expenses for those children, too, McLeary said.

"We don't just give money, we develop relationships with these kids from the start," McLeary said. "We want to make sure they know that this is something their parent would have wanted for them."

The organization's trained counselors work with each child in its program, checking in with them shortly after a death to offer professional counseling and anything else the family needs. The foundation stays in touch with children by sending birthday and holiday cards. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation reaches out to kids throughout middle school, calling them, asking how they're doing and if they need anything. A foundation representative takes a more active role when the kid reaches high school by helping them prepare and pick a college.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation has over 900 kids in their program, McLeary said. More than 203 have graduated from college, and the organization is paying for 123 kids currently in college.

Knowing all that is a comfort to the Nichols family.

If Braydon's first wish was that people never forget his dad, Monte Nichols said, his second is that no one forgets kids like him.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT