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(Tribune News Service) — When military members swear to leave no man behind, they're not just talking about those with whom they're directly serving. That loyalty extends to their fellow soldiers' family members, as well.

Staff Sgt. Zach Cowher, 31, of New Castle, Pa., has been in the Army National Guard for almost four years now. He first met Sgt. Jeremy Pelletier, 39, of Cleveland, about two years ago before he was assigned to Cowher's artillery section. The two have been through quite a bit together since, including being dispatched to Philadelphia in June 2020 during the first wave of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Outside of his Army duties, Pelletier is also a husband to Jamie, 35, and the father of four: Baylee, 8; Nathan, 7; Amaya, almost 3; and Zane, 18 months. The former New Castle residents relocated to Ohio once Nathan was diagnosed with Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, a cancer-like disease that is attacking his brain, to be near the Cleveland Clinic.

Cowher has witnessed firsthand how difficult Nathan's chemotherapy treatments have been on both him and his parents. So, he decided to organize a "Clays for Nathan" fundraiser Oct. 23 at the Lawrence County Sportsmen’s Association to help alleviate the family's financial burden.

"The whole cancer thing is expensive and affects the entire family," said Cowher, who, incidentally, counts former Steelers coach Bill Cowher as his great-uncle. "Sporting clays is an event that someone who is into hunting or sports shooting or who has grandpa's old shotgun in the closet can go do. ... To get into it is fairly easy. The concept is fairly easy. It's a good time that can be had by all."

"Clays for Nathan" will include "100 sporting clay targets and a Mexican style meal for lunch by Los Amigos" along with raffles and a safety demonstration for prospective shooters, according to its Eventbrite description. Cowher said he is still looking for volunteers to help out with the fundraiser. All the money raised will go directly to the Pelletier family.

Pelletier has been in the military for 12 years and is currently serving as an ammo sergeant for a field artillery unit, ensuring guns are always loaded with the proper ammunition. The Maine native met his wife after becoming coworkers with her sister during a stint in Grove City. She put Pelletier up for the night once, and that's when he met Jamie Pelletier.

These days, being parents to four rambunctious children is keeping them both extremely busy. Nathan was a handful even before his diagnosis, Jamie Pelletier said.

"I call him my little monster," she said. "He gets into everything and has no impulse control whatsoever. But he is the sweetest, most loving little boy I have ever met."

In addition to LCH — cancer.gov describes it as "a rare disorder that can damage tissue or cause lesions to form in one or more places in the body" — Nathan also suffers from sensory-processing issues that skew his sense of touch. His LCH also caused him to develop diabetes insipidus and a neurological degenerative disease, the latter of which will hopefully be treated by an experimental drug the Pelletiers are trying to get approval for Nathan to take.

Nathan has obviously had a tough time physically dealing with the many shots and treatments he has to endure. The whole ordeal has also taken a big mental toll on his parents, who suffered a massive loss four years ago when their son, Zachary, was stillborn.

"It's rough to know that your child has this toxin that's being put into his body that's going to make him sick and ruins the week before and after for him," Pelletier said. "He goes from being a playful child to being a caveman grunter. No parent wants that for their child."

For Jamie Pelletier, the worst is when she has to hold Nathan down for shots: "He's screaming at me, 'Mommy no, it hurts!' And he says he doesn't want it. How do you explain to a 7-year-old that it hurts, we know, but it's for his own good? ... It's definitely a challenge."

Cowher observed what the Pelletiers were going through and decided to do something for his friend and fellow solider in the form of "Clays for Nathan."

"I fix things, that's what I do," he said. "And if I can fix a little thing, that's something I can do for them."

From the get-go, Cowher has "been here helping us left and right," Pelletier said. He said Cowher called them out of the blue about a month ago and said he was putting together "Clays for Nathan." Pelletier has never been to the Lawrence County Sportsmen's Association, but he's excited to head back to a more rural setting for a day. Jamie Pelletier is a self-admitted terrible shot when it comes to hitting anything that moves, so she's excited to watch.

They're both grateful for Cowher's efforts and to anyone who donates to their and Nathan's cause.

"Sometimes you feel like you go through things alone in general," Jamie Pelletier said. "To have people back you, I can't even put into words what it means. It's just been incredible to know that when we need it, people are there."

jaxelrod@post-gazette.com

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