Since he was 17, Austin Heineman fought a rare childhood cancer and throughout the ordeal, "Austin's Army" of family, friends and supporters prayed for him, raised money for hospital bills, and tried to bouy his spirits.
At age 25, Heineman died Monday (Oct. 28) at a Buffalo hospice.
The first Facebook post about the legion of aides that would grow to hundreds of people was posted on St. Patrick's Day in 2012. The accompanying photo shows a resolute and unsmiling Austin side-by-side with a little sister; arms folded across their chests in body language that is universally decoded as a barrier to something negative -- like his disease, desmoplastic small round cell tumors.
The community rallied to help one of their own -- a hunter, buddy, fisherman, dirt biker, gamer, cinephile, schoolmate.
Race car driver Billy Burd painted a tribute to Austin and his Army on his vehicle that said: "In This Life There's No Surrender."
The McNutt family had an ATV in the 2012 Fourth of July Parade in Warsaw (Wyoming County) in tribute to Austin and his Army.
They offered countless prayers, mailed him get-well cards and held fundraisers.
A puppy helped, too. He got a buff-colored one when they first shaved his head after chemo.
The Alexander High School Varsity Cheerleaders hosted a benefit varsity boys' basketball game: Alexander Trojans vs. Letchworth. There were 50/50 raffles, half-court shootouts, a bake sale and gift certificates donated by local businesses.
"Amanda's Rage Cranking It Up For Austin" was a rock band fundraiser. Naturally, there were chicken BBQ fundraisers, including one held at the East Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department.
They went on an Austin's Army mud run, a Dirty Girl Mud Run. Oakfield students went Bald for Bucks in his name. One Oakfield student was inspired to hold a children's book drive for patients at Roswell Cancer Institute after meeting Austin.
The former Batavia tattoo and piercing shop Laughing Buddha held a piercing fundraiser. City Slickers Bar & Grill (now Ken's Charcoal Pits) held a Facebook fundraiser.
Teens at Batavia High School joined Austin's Army. Students at Notre Dame paid $3 for the privilege of "dressing down" one day for a fundraiser in Austin's honor.
People sold bracelets, and items from Pampered Chef and Partylite. They cut their hair for Locks of Love. The ladies at the (former) Genesee County Nursing Home held a bake sale.
They went all camo in Pembroke schools to show their support. Little kids camouflaged their faces with paint and at least one boy, "Pete," sported a spiked Mohawk with the concealing design.
They sold dark khaki-colored T-shirts that read Austin's Army on the front and An Army of Hope on the back (in Army font of course). They sent in vacation photos from Florida and a school sightseeing trip to Boston proudly wearing them.
And another T-shirt was offered with Invictus on the back (Latin for unconquerable or undefeated) from the title of Victorian poet William Ernest Henley's stoical poem.*
The Army pumped themselves up for their mission with the battle cry song Soldiers (2011) by Otherwise. It was Austin's handpicked "beating cancer anthem." As one friend wrote: "...Keep fighting...we are all fighting with you."
The battlefield was strewn with: operations; medical trips to New York City and Maryland; rounds of chemotherapy and the nausea that follows; blood transfusions; bone-marrow transplants; a blood infection; double pneumonia; endless IVs; tests; CAT scans; PET scans; pain; foot-dragging insurance companies, and more of course.
A lot of encouragement in the trenches was warranted and received -- as one person wrote: "No matter how hard it may get, we will be with you every step of the way. We will never give up on you. We are your rock. Your strength, determination, and courage are an inspiration to all of us. Stay strong!"
The Heineman family will receive friends tomorrow (Oct. 31) from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Michael S. Tomaszewski Funeral & Cremation Chapel at 4120 W. Main Street Road, Batavia. A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at Evergreen Hill Cemetery in Corfu.
For the full obituary, click here.
(Photo from Austin's Army Facebook page.)