BLET helps grant a special wish

CSX helps BLET give 13-year-old with cancer one of 'the best days of his life'

Josh Mills had a day to remember on February 23, thanks to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and CSX.

Josh, 13, was made an "Honorary Locomotive Engineer" by the BLET and was given a behind the scenes tour of the CSX rail yard in Flint, Mich. He also enjoyed an authentic railroad lunch served in a vintage cook car and even got to meet a CSX railroad police officer along with his dog, Max.

Josh and his father Tony were extended these unique courtesies by CSX and the BLET in hopes of giving the family some special memories that will last a lifetime.

At just 13 years old, Josh has spent the last six months battling a cancerous brain tumor.

Josh the "Trainiac"

Joshua Mills loves trains.

"I call him a trainiac because he's such a maniac about trains," said his father, Tony.

Josh has studied railroad history as well as modern day railroading. He knows specific facts, such as when the transcontinental railroad was completed, and he can also identify various diesel locomotives based on knowledge gained from the Microsoft Train Simulator game (which he plays on a regular basis). Josh also spends a lot of time in his basement with his dad working on his HO scale model train.

In early November, Josh complained of a severe headache that wouldn't go away. He was forced to come home from school early one day because the headache was so severe that it caused vomiting and double vision.

Doctors at the University of Michigan Hospital noticed that his left eye wasn't moving in conjunction with his right eye, and upon further examination, they found a brain tumor about the size of a tennis ball.

Josh was with his father Tony and mother Alanna when doctors gave them the news. Tony said he and Alanna were beside themselves when they heard the news, but were heartened by Josh's brave reaction.

"He just said, 'Hmm, my first tumor,'" Tony said.

The tumor, called glioblastoma multifome, was not a solid mass that could easily be removed. Tony said it was the most aggressive type of brain tumor and compared it to paint being poured over the brain - a spreading mass that would be difficult to remove.

Doctors rushed to perform emergency surgery and warned that it could cause paralysis, blindness and even brain damage. But when Josh emerged from nearly seven hours of surgery, he was hungry and ready to sit up.

"I know I've witnessed a true miracle," Tony said. "There's no other way to explain it."

The surgery was followed by several weeks of chemotherapy treatments, and Josh bears a large scar from the surgery.

Reaching out to the BLET

It was against this backdrop that Josh's uncle, Charles Nichols, e-mailed the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

"My nephew, who is 13, is a lover of trains and railroading," Nichols wrote. "About one week ago, he was rushed to the University of Michigan Hospital after a tumor in his brain was discovered. The tumor was removed, but unfortunately, it is cancerous. Do you know of a locomotive school that I could contact that would give my nephew an honorary degree as a locomotive engineer? I am sure that this would bring some joy to my young nephew."

The request touched the hearts of many BLET officers and staff, including BLET National President Don Hahs. President Hahs instructed his staff to not just accommodate the request, but to give the young man and his family a special day that they would cherish forever.

The Mills family lives in Swartz Creek, Mich., just a few miles from the CSX yard in Flint. The idea emerged to see if CSX would be willing to host Josh and his dad for a visit.

It was decided that if the Mills were to visit the rail yard, then safety would be of the utmost importance. As a result, calls were made to Larry James, a member of BLET Division 284 who resides in Parkersburg, W.Va. and is the BLET System SENSE Coordinator at CSX.

Brother James took the request to the highest levels at CSX. Once it was assured that the BLET would adhere to the strictest of safety standards, and after stressing that the visit would be a special occasion only for these circumstances, Tony L. Ingram, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at CSX, granted approval for the visit.

A Day To Remember

Accommodations were made to host Josh and his father on February 23.

When Josh and his father Tony arrived at the CSX yard office in Flint, they were both presented with striped CSX locomotive engineer caps by Bud Morse, SENSE Safety Coordinator on CSX's Chicago Division and a member of BLET Division 937 in Toledo, Ohio. As Josh put on the cap, the large scar left by the surgery to remove the tumor was visible, going from his right ear to the middle of his head.

Brother Morse also presented Josh with a specially engraved CSX pocket watch.

John Bentley of the BLET National Division Public Relations Department presented Josh with a certificate naming him an "Honorary Locomotive Engineer." The certificate was mounted on a plaque and was signed by President Hahs, First Vice President Ed Rodzwicz and National Secretary-Treasurer Bill Walpert. The National Division also gave Josh a BLE History Book along with a North American railroad atlas and a field guide to diesel locomotives.

Dan Elesone, a CSX K9 officer and 33-year railroad veteran, introduced Josh to his dog Max inside the yard office. A German Shepherd born and trained in Czechoslovakia, Max weighs about 80 pounds and only understands commands in German or Czech. Max performed several "sit" and "stay" commands for Josh while Elesone explained the duties of railroad police and K9 officers. Later, Elesone took Josh for a ride in his police car and helped Josh write out a ticket to his dad for "making him do his homework."

Next on the agenda was lunch. Brother Morse said members of the BLET and United Transportation Union have a good working relationship in the Flint area. When Morse discussed the special visit for Josh during a safety meeting, UTU members volunteered to help.

"These are all family men with children of their own," Brother Morse said. "When it comes to something like helping Josh, everyone really comes together."

Ken Lewis, the UTU safety chairman for the area, volunteered to fire up the railroad's old cook car. The car, used during World War II to feed soldiers traversing the country on troop trains, has been in the Flint yard for many years. Lewis said the car was originally built for the Pere Marquette Railroad and has been used recently for safety committee meetings.

On behalf of the UTU, Lewis presented Josh with a railroad lantern, binoculars, hats, and several other train-themed gifts.

Due to cold temperatures, UTU volunteers began manning the cook car on February 22, so that it would be warm enough for Josh's visit on February 23. The volunteers started a fire in the cook car's wood burning stove and tended to it all day and all night. The stove is the cook car's only heat source, and it is also where UTU volunteers prepared a lunch of hamburgers and hot dogs for Josh and his dad.

"Not very many people can say they've eaten lunch in an authentic railroad cook car," Brother Morse said.

The final part of the tour was Josh's favorite of the day - a tour inside of an actual locomotive. Josh and his dad were given safety glasses, ear plugs and gloves before entering the rail yard.

Josh was familiar with many of the controls because of his knowledge of the Microsoft Train Simulator game. He was allowed to sit in the engineer's seat where he was shown the throttle, speedometer, and other aspects of the engineer's control panel. Josh enjoyed blowing the locomotive's horn.

Others who helped make Josh's special day such a success were: CSX Trainmaster Mike Lakel; Dave Norman, Local Chairman of Division 304 in Saginaw, Mich.; UTU Member Carl Bunzo; and UTU member Dick Berdt, who volunteered as the chef in the cook car.

After The Visit

Following Josh's special day on February 23, he was scheduled to begin another round of five chemotherapy treatments from February 25 through February 29. Another five days of treatments are scheduled for March. The new chemo will be twice as powerful as the treatments he received following his November surgery.

Josh's dad Tony expressed profuse thanks to Tony Ingram and CSX for their willingness to open their train yard, and their hearts, to help grant Josh a special day.

He was also extremely grateful to the BLET for the courtesies extended to his son.

"Josh had a day he will never forget," Tony said. "You guys are first class. Things like this go a long way toward keeping faith in human kindness. Thank you for giving Josh one of the best days of his life."



© 2008 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen