Halfway around the world in war-torn Afghanistan, a West Palm Beach-based group of solders is sporting shaved heads to support a little boy facing a battle of his own back home: cancer.
They had heard through the military grapevine about 7-year-old Jay Ryon, a "brave little trooper" whose leukemia diagnosis has sparked an outpouring of love worldwide. And just like that, the 19 men decided to go under the razor.
"It was an easy decision," said Sgt. David Privett. "Some of us just wanted to put a smile on a child's face and some of us thought, 'What if it was one of our kids?' "
The soldiers of the Army's 388th Clearance Company are among thousands of people rallying around the Ryon family, who live in the small, Central Florida city of Mount Plymouth.
Jay, a precocious and sweet only child constantly wearing a "big goofy grin," was diagnosed with cancer in mid-January, according to his mom, Maggie Denk. He was especially upset to learn he'd have to lose his hair, so Denk and her husband, Nick Ryon, both shaved off theirs.
Soon after, bald heads were popping up all over the Lake County Fire Department, where Ryon is a firefighter. And that was just the beginning.
Jay's story spread quickly online, through a Facebook page called "Team Jay." It started out with just family and friends, but now — a month later — more than 8,300 people representing every state and continent have joined.
"We never dreamed that it would be that big," Denk said.
On the page, people share words of encouragement, funny videos and pictures of their newly bald heads, shaved in honor of Jay. Someone even gave their cat a buzzcut and posted a photo for Jay, a big-time animal lover.
Scrolling through it gives him a boost when he's having a tough time, Denk said.
"Knowing people are thinking about him in the outside world is just amazing — amazeballs, as he would say," she said, using her son's favorite word.
The men of the 338th Clearance Company found out about Jay through Sgt. Tony Tindell, who, when he's home, works as a firefighter in a community near where the Ryons live. Tindell said he had to get involved after seeing the little boy's wide smile in pictures posted online.
"He sits in his hospital bed with the biggest ear-to-ear grin imaginable, refusing to quit and showing no weakness," he said. "It would be easy to give up — no one likes to be sick — it would be easy to sit there with a scowl or frown. It takes true strength to smile."
Privett, who was quick to jump in and help, shaved everyone's heads, spelling out Team Jay in the hair of seven of the guys. The group, decked out in their Army uniforms, took before and after pictures and made a collage to send to Jay.
Along the bottom, Privett typed: "We got your back all the way from Afghanistan."
"Shaving our heads," he said, "is our way of showing not only Jay but every other child out there fighting cancer that their fight is not forgotten."
The collage brought on "a lot of tears" when the Ryon family saw it, Denk said. Her grandfather served as a fighter pilot, so anything military-related is extra special to all of them, especially Jay, who's close with his great-grandpa.
And the way they wrote out Team Jay — he thought that was the "coolest thing in the world," Denk said.
"That picture, especially with my grandparents, definitely struck a chord, that the military would take the time to do something like that in their very brief amount of free time," she said.
"These guys were strangers, and yet they still did that."
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To support Jay Ryon and his family, visit lakefirefightercharity.org