FLORENCE – Dakota Olsen was never one to pay much mind to those who told him he couldn’t do something.
He hardly missed a step when his high school counselor told him his dreams of going to the U.S. Air Force Academy and flying a fighter jet were nearly unattainable.
Through dogged perseverance, Olsen wound his way through the lengthy process that would eventually lead to his academy appointment.
His parents, Flint and Angie, were there on the day in 2008 when their son shook the hand of President George W. Bush at his graduation from the academy.
As proud as they were on that special day, none of them could have imagined that the test of Dakota’s resolve had only just begun.
“You know how kids are,” said Flint. “At some point, every kid wants to be a fireman or something on that order. Dakota always told us he wanted to fly.
“As he got older, we’d ask him what he wanted to do. His answer was always the same. He wanted to be a pilot.”
With his academy graduation, his dream seemed certain to come true. Of the 1,030 cadets who graduated that day, 534 were selected for pilot training.
Dakota was one of those.
He was stationed in Columbus, Miss., and breezed through the first phase of training on a turbo-prop aircraft called the T-6 Texan. His scores were high enough to put him into the next phase that could eventually lead to a chance to fly a fighter jet.
Dakota was three weeks short of graduating from the six-month course when he developed a strong cough. He went to the doctor’s office and after a series of tests, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
They found a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his chest.
“It was a tough time for everyone,” Flint remembered. “Being that close to becoming a pilot and having his dream come true and then that happens. Yes, we were crushed.”
Air Force officials told Dakota then that he would never fly in the service of his country.
And, just like he always did, Dakota ignored all of that.
When he first went to see the physician who would treat his cancer, Dakota told him he planned to fly again. He told the doctor that he was willing to have a longer recovery if it meant forgoing drugs that could harm his chances for that to occur.
His parents never saw him stumble even once.
“I have to say he just maintained this extremely positive attitude,” Flint said. “I never once heard anything negative from him. There was none of this ‘woe is me’ stuff.”
“He would always tell us, ‘I’m going to dominate this thing,’ ” Angie said.
In November 2010, Dakota started doing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for his cancer. At the same time, he worked as the assistant to the commander on the base where he was attached.
About halfway through the cancer treatment, he asked his doctor if it would be possible for him to run a marathon.
He told his dad later the doctor said he could do whatever his body would allow him to do, but there wasn’t any way it would allow him to run a marathon while undergoing cancer treatment.
“He said he could hear the doctor laughing all the way down the hall after his appointment,” Flint said.
So Dakota started training and a few months later went to Nashville to run in a marathon. He finished it, too.
Before he did that, he entered a run to support cancer treatment patients. The young woman accepting applications asked him if there was someone in his family who was going through cancer treatment at the time.
Dakota said, “Myself.”
She said, “Oh. Are you a cancer survivor?”
He replied, “Not yet. But I’m going to be.”
When Dakota received the good news that his cancer was in remission, he was told his only chance of returning to flight school was to get a medical waiver. Everyone said it was a long shot for that to occur.
“They told him that as far as they could tell, it hadn’t happened before and it probably never will,” Flint said.
The cancer had to be in remission for a year for him to even begin to try. When he got that clean bill of health in June 2011, Dakota went to work going through the long process of filling out the paperwork that had to be signed off by officials at the Pentagon.
By August, the Air Force had agreed to perform a series of medical tests to see if he would be allowed the waiver. But even that turned out to be a closed door.
He learned that even if he was able to get a medical waiver, it would be a Class 2 waiver. He needed a Class 1 to get back in school.
“It was another low point when he found out that the medical waiver wasn’t going to be the ticket either,” Flint said.
Dakota didn’t stop. He kept asking questions and looking for answers.
The base commander took notice and decided to support him. The process to change the waiver classification began. He needed nine signatures that began with his doctors and went all the way up to a high-ranking officer in Washington, D.C.
No one knew for sure how it might end.
“In January 2012, Dakota got a phone call from his base commander on a Wednesday afternoon,” Flint said. “He said, ‘Mr. Olsen, I’ve been notified that your waiver has been approved and is being sent out to the base this afternoon. I suggest you go get a good night’s sleep. You need to show up tomorrow morning with your flight suit to start T-38 flight training again.’ ”
His parents were there on July 27 to see him graduate.
Dakota was presented with four of the six prestigious awards given to the class, including the commander’s Top Gun honors.
They were there when their son learned that his request to fly the F16 fighter jet had been accepted.
“It was very exciting, overwhelming and amazing,” Flint said.
Dakota’s parents said they decided to share this story not so much because they are proud of their son – which, of course, they are – but because his story shows that dreams don’t have to go away when bad things happen.
“If, in some way, his situation could help inspire someone else, then that would just be wonderful,” Flint said. “If it would help someone else overcome adversity that they didn’t think was possible.”
“I’ve learned about the importance of perseverance from my son,” Angie said. “I’ve learned that you never, never, never give up.”
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.