"Whatever he wants, we just do," Bill Kohler tells PEOPLE. "I'm trying to fit a lifetime of memories into whatever time he has left."
Ten years ago, Bill Kohler was headed down a bad path.
After being injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and leaving the Army in July 2006 after 17 years, he came home and was adrift. He started drinking too much, haunted by the friends he’d lost and all the carnage and devastation he’d seen.
“I was isolated,” says Bill, 48, a former combat medic who now lives in York, Pennsylvania. “I came back and didn’t get any help.”
Then he found out he was going to be a father. After his son Ayden was born on Feb. 13, 2007 and he held him in his arms, everything changed.
“He saved me,” he says. “One night he was lying on my chest, his tongue kinda clucking, and I just felt his warmth.”
He pauses, still choking up at the memory.
“In the corner there was this light shining and it was dark in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit],” he says. “I felt this warmth and this light and I thought, ‘This is like people from the war that didn’t make it telling me I gotta do something.’ I just felt like this weight lifted off of me.”
The next day he got a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with an offer to work in a local hospital.
“All these positive things started happening,” he says. “It was like once my mind got positive, I started getting positive results.”
For the past seven months he, in turn, has done his best to save his son, now 10, who was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) last August after he collapsed in the middle of football practice. He has two tumors in his brain — one in his brain stem and one in his cerebellum. Doctors told Bill his son had eight to 12 months to live. Since then, he’s been chronicling it all on his “Ayden’s Army” website and 4AydenStrong Facebook page. His local community has rallied to the cause and Ayden’s football team set up contributions to his GoFundMe account. Contributions have poured in.
“This has become another war to me,” he says. “We try to have good days the best we can.”
Bill spent his son’s first months post-diagnosis trying to get him into every clinical trial he could while still getting him traditional treatments at Johns Hopkins University. When that failed, he focused on making sure his last months were filled with doing and seeing the things he loved best. A social worker suggested Ayden get a “Wish Book” to record his hopes and dreams, which has helped guide Bill.
“Whatever he wants, we just do,” he says. “I’m trying to fit a lifetime of memories into whatever time he has left.”
So far Ayden has gone fishing in Florida (he caught a 47-inch hammer jack), target shooting and shot his first buck. He’s been a guest basketball player for Penn State and met the coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A local motorcycle club got him a hot tub and he’s spoken with celebrity chef Guy Fieri (Ayden is a huge fan of the Food Network).
Still to come: On Thursday he will go into a bear’s den and hold a cub, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission; on Friday he’ll go to see some C130s (military transport aircraft) at a local Army base and later this month he’ll go to a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Oh, and singer Ted Nugent has been calling. The offers just keep pouring in, Bill says.
“Everybody’s doing so much for us across the nation,” he says. “It’s been overwhelming and I couldn’t reach out to everybody but I just want to say how grateful I am to everyone for all the support.”
He was trying to finish his bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies but took the semester off to focus on caring for his son.
“Now I’m with him 24/7,” he says.
He finds himself comforting his son’s fears while still struggling with his own.
“What if I don’t get better and die?” Ayden asked him at one point, he says.
“Right now we’re fighting the demons together,” Bill told him. “Positive thoughts, positive results. You have to see the sun not the dark..and no matter what, you’re the greatest son a dad could ever have.”
He and his second wife even allowed Ayden’s mom to stay in their home to make the most of the time he has left.
His dad is acutely aware they are in month seven now.
“In the beginning he lost all the nerve skills in his right arm and right leg,” he says, “but after radiation ended he started getting his nerve skills back and one day we were sitting at the kitchen table and here he comes walking out. I was like, ‘What the heck?’ “
But those effects were only temporary.
“Now he’s starting to drool again,” he says. “He has palsy symptoms. His right hand isn’t working again so he’s going backward and the tumor has actually shrunk. So I don’t know. His speech is going a little bit. It isn’t clear.”
He can’t walk on his own so Bill hangs on tight to him when he tries.
Though he realizes this is a battle he will ultimately lose, he keeps his focus on what’s important: spending time with his son while he’s still here.
“I just take it day by day, trying to ride the waves,” he says.