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Justin Bryce, 10, adjusts his beret given to him by the Army. The Make-A-Wish Foundation helped the terminal cancer patient make his military wish a reality before his death on Christmas Day.
Justin Bryce, 10, adjusts his beret given to him by the Army. The Make-A-Wish Foundation helped the terminal cancer patient make his military wish a reality before his death on Christmas Day. (Paul Haring / Courtesy to S&S)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Most battles fought by U.S. soldiers are waged with bullets and bombs.

But the Army’s littlest sergeant, 10-year-old Justin Bryce, used different ammunition in his war against cancer: the love of his family, prayers from all corners of the country, and an implacable spirit that stayed fast to the end.

On Christmas Day, the 10-year-old warrior fought his last battle. Cancer took Justin’s body. But his spirit and courage touched the hearts of hundreds of people, inside and outside the Army.

“Justin was very daring,” his mother, Mary Bryce, said in a Wednesday telephone interview from her home in Greene, N.Y. “He was very brave. He wanted people to know that no matter how bad life seems, you can always keep going.”

Justin was promoted to his rank by Sgt. Major of the Army Jack Tilley at a special Pentagon ceremony Oct. 7.

The promotion was engineered by the Make-A-Wish foundation, which works to give children with fatal diseases their dying wishes.

After Justin was diagnosed with terminal cancer in August 2001, the foundation asked Justin to make a wish. Justin replied that he wanted to outrank his brother, Pvt. Raymond Bryce of 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the request, and Justin was granted his sergeant’s chevrons on Oct. 7.

Small for his age, and fragile, Justin nevertheless hollered “Hooah!” after Tilley bent low to pin the rank on the child’s shoulders.

Later this spring, Justin will be buried wearing his chevrons, correctly sewn onto a proper battle dress uniform complete with dog tags and black beret, Mary Bryce said. The uniform was a gift from Rumsfeld; the beret came from the Army.

“We decided that Justin would want to wear his Army uniform,” Bryce said. “ I’ve never seen him so happy as when he got it.”

Before his death, Justin was able to visit his brother at Fort Drum, where the young sergeant got a blue-ribbon reception, as well as travel to Fort Belvoir, Va.

Justin saw soldiers perform field exercises and military dogs at work. He rode in Humvees, helicopters and even the Army’s new Stryker wheeled combat vehicle.

“But his favorite thing of all was shooting the M-16,” his mother said.

The Bryce family held a memorial service for Justin on Dec. 29 in Greene, but another brother, Eric, asked his parents to defer the burial until Eric’s 12th birthday this spring, Mary Bryce said.

Justin’s headstone will read: Sgt. Justin A. Bryce.

“He was very serious about being in the Army,” Bryce said. “He called himself ‘Sgt. Bryce,’ even up to the last, when he couldn’t walk anymore. Constantly, ‘I’m the sergeant.’ ‘Sgt. Bryce would like a glass of water, please’.”

Mary Bryce said she is “trying to aim my other two children into the military.”

“I’ve always respected the military for what you do to protect the country, but I look at [the military] differently now,” Bryce said. “I have never seen so much love as has come from the Army” for Justin.”

To read more about Justin Bryce, or to contact his family, go to: www.caringbridge.org/ny/justinbryce

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