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Randy's Way: A Marine veteran's faith-based journey with ALS

By JANNETTE PIPPIN | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: May 12, 2018

EMERALD ISLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Retired Marine Maj. Randy Hebert is still running.

His body failed him long ago but the warmth of the sun on his face and the lull of the sea breeze still draws him to the place where he can still feel, if only in his mind, his feet racing through the sand.

"Every time we go there he says he's able to run the beach in his mind," said Mandy Woodin of Jacksonville, who has been his caregiver for nearly 5 years.

Some days he may not get beyond the 'cement beach' that is the driveway of his Emerald Isle home but whenever possible his days include a trip down the road to Randy's Way, the first public handicap accessible ramp to the beach in Emerald Isle when constructed in 1997.

When Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) had robbed Hebert of his ability to drive his prized Corvette he raffled it off and the money raised paid for the beach access that carries his name.

That's the Randy's Way Thomas Gill came to know after he was approached by Kim Hebert about writing a book about her husband's journey with ALS, known commonly as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Gill, who lives a few blocks away, knew of the beach access and within a week had decided on Randy's Way as the title of the book. From the first moment he met Randy he knew it is a title that comes with double meaning.

Randy's Way is how Hebert has lived his life in the face of adversity and a faith-based journey he has taken with his wife, his soulmate, by his side.

Hebert has been confined to a wheelchair for nearly 25 years. He can no longer talk, move or breathe without assistance, and his only form of communication is by blinking his eyes. Each day he beats the odds when the average life expectancy for those diagnosed with ALS is two to five years.

Gill wasn't sure what to expect as he began the book project but had to start by asking Hebert how he has overcome so many challenges to survive as long as he has with the debilitating disease.

"That was the first thing I wanted to know and his answer was, 'God doesn't make mistakes,'" Gill recalls.

Hebert was a rising young Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune when he met Kim, who was from Cape Carteret, one evening out at Emerald Isle. They will celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary this year but everything changed for the newly married couple when Hebert was diagnosed with ALS in 1995 after being exposed to chemical toxins during the Gulf War.

When asked what his first thought was after being diagnosed, he answers with the ABC'ing method his family developed to help him communicate. As the ABC's are recited, he blinks as you arrive at the appropriate letter to spell out the words.

"Retire and be a beach bum," Hebert said as Kim and Mandy translated.

"That's his sense of humor showing," Kim added.

Randy doesn't have to speak for there to be a conversation between the two. After just a word or two by ABC'ing Kim can usually tell what Randy is thinking.

They've always been a team, Kim says. ALS may have robbed him of his body, but not his spirit.

"You can live life with ALS," Randy said as Kim translated.

Their Christian faith keeps them positive.

"You can take the negative road but then everything you encounter will be negative," Kim said.

Together, they raised their children – Nicole and Kyle – and always did their best to give them as normal a childhood as possible.

And together they have fought for the rights of veterans.

Gill said he was captivated when he watched the video of their 1996 testimony before Congress on Gulf War illnesses caused by toxic exposure.

"During this testimony, this formerly athletic Marine major who could now barely stand by himself was literally and figuratively standing up for his fellow service members to ensure they and their families receive appropriate healthcare and other VA benefits," Gill said. "Randy shared his personal story of the events leading up to his exposure of the toxins that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled in Kuwait and Iraq. I often wondered as I wrote the book what I would have done if put in Randy's place. I guess I get to vicariously appreciate Randy's strength and conviction as a man and Christian and hope some of it rubs off on me."

Gill has shared their story after talking with Randy's Marine colleagues, college buddies, and their friends and church family.

He helps Randy share his own words and recounts the stories of Randy's life growing up as well as his Marine Corps years and meeting and marrying Kim, the love of his life.

The book is a mix of humorous and serious and interwoven in each chapter is a message of their faith.

Gill began writing after careers as an Air Force officer and health care executive and has penned two fiction novels but had never written anything like Randy's Way.

He said meeting Randy and Kim and working on the book strengthened his own faith and he feels he is the one who got the most out of writing the book.

"Very few times can you do something for someone that they simply could not do themselves. While (the book) was a lot of work that I wasn't sure I was prepared for, it eventually became a passion of love and my way to thank a veteran who gave everything except his last breath," Gill said.

Does Randy Hebert have any regrets about the sacrifice he's made in service to his country?

Kim speaks up and knows just what Randy would say.

"I've asked him this question and he said if he knew he would get ALS he would do it again," she said. "He has no regrets. He did his job as a Marine. He did his duty and he would do it again without question."

Randy blinks and ABC's in response.

"That's because God made me a Marine for a reason."

___

(c)2018 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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