BRISTOW, VA (WUSA9) - A young man has reached a higher rank than his Air Force parents. Alexander "Big Al" Wales earned his wings as Second Lieutenant, 8/31/16.
The 16-year-old student lives with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a neurodegenerative disease. Diagnosed at 9 years old, Wales faced a prognosis of living only six months.
Five years later, the Honorary Airman got applause and hugs from top Air Force staff, family and friends in his backyard.
The teen comes from a family of Air Force members. Mother, father and grandfather have all served.
"He just naturally has people gravitate towards him. Loves to flirt with girls, loves the military," said mother, Kathy Wales.
She described her son as active in church and scouting. Wales has volunteered for wounded warriors and their military families.
"He has always had a giving heart. And so we thought it would be neat to have an opportunity to give something back to him," said Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, Director of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance in the US Air Force. Otto met Wales through father, Michael Wales, an Air Force analyst.
At age nine Wales underwent a bone marrow transplant to try stopping the disease. There is no cure for ALD. So his family works to build awareness for the rare genetic illness.
"It's very hard when you don't have any approved medications, you don't have any approved treatments. But you have to still try everything to keep fighting," his mother said.
Doctor David Steinhorn recently treated Wales at Children’s National Medical Center. He suggested providing the teenager with a personally meaningful experience of being a part of the Air Force.
"One has to measure a lifetime in terms of how full it is with the things that are meaningful, rather than how long it is," said Steinhorn.
On a sunny afternoon, mother, father and older brother, Zachary, proudly looked at Wales wearing his new flight badges.