By Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith
Born into a military family, Capt. Cole Holloway was destined to follow both parents’ footsteps into the 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 eventually got his dream job, becoming a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
“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 said.
“It’s everything wrapped into one.”
But early into his thrilling career, his dream came to a screeching halt.
The Diagnosis that Changed Everything
“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 [and] playing video games…kind of cued me into 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 2018, Holloway was given a diagnosis — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“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.
Breaking the Bad News
“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 said.
“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.
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.”
While the couple has taken the news fairly well, they’re already seeing changes in their lives because of it. It has affected Holloway physically, and 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, Holloway said, 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,” he said with a sigh.
“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,” she said.
“Just let them remain small. 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 affected his professional life. He’s no longer able to fly and will have to medically retire from the Air Force.
“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: the question of whether to tell his mother about his diagnosis.
His mother was previously diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that had spread through her body and eventually to her brain, making Holloway uncertain whether burdening her with bad news was something he should do. 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 said. “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.”
Finding a Silver Lining
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 1 in 5 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 said.
“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 [who] people can rely on when they know the bad news is happening to me.”
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 said.
“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 added with a laugh, “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 resilience — something of high value to the Air Force. He defines resilience as “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. “[It’s] 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,” she 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.”
- This story first appeared on defense.gov. It has been edited for style, brevity and grammar.
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