The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit teamed up with the SWAT team to make one little boys aviation dream come true with an “Epic Day”
Every once in a while, you come across someone that changes the way you look at the world. For me that person came in the form of eleven year old Angelo Joseph “AJ” Tapia.
AJ was born prematurely at just twenty six weeks to parents Victoria and Adrian. AJ’s parents had already suffered the tragic loss of two stillborn babies previously, named Gracie and Joseph.
AJ was to Victoria and Adrian, truly a miracle.
Born July 20th, 2004, AJ weighed only one pound eleven ounces at birth. His battle however, had only just begun. Spending his first four months and eight days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), AJ proved that he was a fighter, but the road ahead was going to be tough for the family. AJ has in his 11 years, endured more than twenty two surgeries, procedures, hospitalizations, specialist appointments and physical therapy appointments. By all medical accounts, he should not have made it. AJ suffers from numerous medical complications, while in the NICU he suffered from an intra-ventricular hemorrhage (IVH)- a condition not uncommon in prematurely delivered infants. IVH is essentially a severe brain bleed into the fluid-filled areas (ventricles) of the brain. The net effect of the aftermath for little AJ was causing him to be missing half of his brain tissue.
The Tapia family was told to brace for the possibility of losing their son. Nearly one third of infants do not survive. Told he would never walk, talk, breathe on his own, the Tapia’s were told he would never even know who they were. After several months in the NICU, a doctor advised the Tapia’s that it would be “kinder if they let him go peacefully.” But AJ had other plans. He was a fighter, and fight he did. On first look at AJ, you wouldn’t know he wasn’t just your average eleven year old boy. Although developmentally much younger than his years, AJ has a fire in his spirit that is electric to everyone around him and his infectious personality belies the struggles he has been through in his short life.
AJ physically still suffers complications due to cerebral palsy and retinopathy of prematurity. Walking with a limp and a constant pull of his leg, he often times does not acknowledge the right side of his body. He struggles daily, but, when you see him, you see that he finds his own way in life and he has figured out how to make the best of what he has to the fullest. Not limited to the labels placed on him by disability, AJ is the Tapia’s walking, talking, breathing miracle. Blind in his right eye and suffering decreased vision in his left, you wouldn’t know for asking him. When you ask AJ about his right eye; he’ll tell you it simply “burned out.”
Recently, AJ noticed “flashing” in his left eye, which was more bad news for the Tapia family. An eye exam revealed a large cataract and his Ophthalmologist suspected a possible retinal detachment. His doctor telling the Tapias’ that he believes the retina to be the culprit of the visual flashing and that he was concerned that disrupting it can lead to permanent blindness. AJ is now scheduled for surgery May 16th that could take away what is left of the sight in his left eye. After the realization that he may go completely blind, heartbreakingly begging his parents to save his vision, Victoria and Adrian Tapia- all too aware of the gravity of the situation- encouraged AJ to think about what he felt he needed to “see” in case his vision couldn’t be saved. That’s how his “Seeing Bucket List” came to be.
THE SEEING BUCKET LIST
The next morning on the kitchen table, Victoria found a scribbled, tear stained note. she says it was the sweetest thing she had ever read. “He poured his heart into that note, and it has since evolved into his laundry list of adventures.” One such adventure-centered around AJ’s love of police, specifically police that flew helicopters over his house, which happens to be on the departure route of Mather Airport in Sacramento County, California. Mather is where the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department houses its aviation unit, consisting of two UH1-H Bell “Huey’s” the agency uses for rescue and special assignments as well as three Airbus Helicopters EC120’s used for patrol operations.
Through a mutual friend, the family was able to reach out to the aviation unit. SCSD pilot’s Brian Rutledge and Duncan Brown, who once told the story, immediately started the ball rolling on not only a visit to the Sacramento County Aviation Unit, but making AJ an honorary Tactical Flight Officer (TFO). A week later, AJ was welcomed by the aviation unit and presented with his own flight jacket that was donated, complete with personalized name tag. The newly pinned honorary TFO was then taken along on a scheduled patrol flight, treated as a member of their team and not just a child with a disability.
For AJ, this was a life highlight. Unbeknown to him and his family however, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had just begun their plans for AJ. Deputy Brown had started planning what was to be an “Epic Nerf Battle” that involved AJ commanding the county’s elite SWAT team on a mock raid, AJ’s “mission”, would be to battle the bad guys, diffuse a mock bomb and find the objective at the SWAT training center in Sacramento County. Coincidentally, the day of AJ’s bucket list event fell during a scheduled photo shoot with the agency for an upcoming Collective Magazine story, so we tapped into our resources, reaching out to see if any vendors would be willing to make AJ’s day more special.
VENDORS STEP UP
What we got after only a few phone calls, was nothing short of amazing. The reason why the helicopter industry proves time and time again that they are always willing to help. Gibson and Barnes provided AJ a custom flight suit that was fitted with Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Aviation patches and a custom name tag. Pro Flight Gear stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park by building Sacramento County’s newest honorary TFO a brand new ALPHA flight helmet. To cap off the amazing donations, Trailers of the East Coast Graphics donated custom made helmet graphics. One of our photographers Tony Zeljeznjak, helped out with an aviation band scanner that will be wired directly into the flight helmet to allow AJ, should his vision fail, to be able to still listen in to his heroes, keeping his aviation dream alive.
THE BIG DAY
On the day of the event, AJ was only told that he would be visiting the air unit with his parents. Upon arrival, AJ was treated to a demonstration of SWAT fast roping and rappel training that coincided with his visit. What AJ didn’t know was that,, Deputy Brown and other deputies from the unit had amassed roughly one hundred Nerf guns for the day’s events. Thanks to many parents who heard of the plans and a generous donation from Target, their “armory” was stocked with over 400 rounds of Nerf ammunition. as well
When AJ was presented with his flight suit, he was then told about the plans for the rest of the day. He stood dumbfounded, astonished this was all for him. The weather did not cooperate on the day with a storm front rolling in. That was however no match for AJ’s entusiasm as he rode into the training complex in the SWAT Bearcat armored vehicle with his “assault team.”
Upon arrival at the facility, AJ seemed completely at ease with the twenty SWAT officers that had assembled to complete the challenge with him. The team mounted up on the Bearcat to force entry into the shoot house which had been set up for AJ’s mission. Wasting no time, AJ’s infectious personality and natural leadership shone through as he commanded his team with a cry of “LETS DO THIS!” leading his team into battle.
AJ, decked out in his flight suit, face shield and tactical vest, emerged victorious. he had not only defeated the enemy, but also diffused a mock bomb in the process.
The battle ultimately culminated with him “finding the “flag.””. Which was a box containing his custom made flight helmet
After the Nerf battle, AJ was then whisked away to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) where he was driven by Deputy Silvey in a mock pursuit, chasing his mother, Victoria and Deputy Brown in a “perp” vehicle.
The chase made all the more fun by the recent storm front leaving the EVOC track wet, adding to the excitement until the “perpetrator” Deputy Brown, ran from the vehicle and was chased down and handcuffed by AJ. His “arrest” of Deputy Brown was the final event of his “Epic Day” with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. While AJ may fight the battle of not being able to see the world through his eyes forever, one thing is for sure: His courageous parents and a slew of friends, family and people who have heard about AJ’s battles are doing their best to make sure this tough little guy has a few more adventures to participate in.
AJ will be throwing out the first pitch at Raley Field in Sacramento for the Sacramento River Cats home game on May 9th to check off another item on his “seeing bucket list”.