SOMERSET — In 2016, the family of Matthew Pierce has a single wish: for the 20-year-old aspiring Marine to be cancer free.
Pierce and his extended family shared his story at the Marine Corps League headquarters on High Street on New Year’s Eve.
A ceremony and presentations with the Young Marines from the Battleship Massachusetts and assembled Marine league members included Bruce Aldrich, the commandant, telling Pierce, “Anything you need, you’re our family now. You’re part of us.”
Aldrich presented him an “honorary membership” and a miniature brass model of the Iwo Jima flag-raising memorial to bring to the hospital “for good luck and courage.”
Matt Pierce, who lives with his parents in Achushnet and Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was fulfilling a childhood dream studying war and peace at Norwich University in Vermont to become a commissioned Marine officer when unexpected adversity struck him.
Earlier this year, Matt suffered a bad bump on the back of his head after horsing around, which drew attention to a much more serious issue.
At first, doctors removed what they thought was a cyst before the family received his cancer diagnosis on Sept. 15.
Pierce has Ewing’s sarcoma, cancer of the bone and soft tissue, which occurs most frequently in children and teenagers.
Surgeons at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center have scheduled an operation to remove his malignant tumor mass and part of his skull, replacing it with a plate, his parents said.
The operation is scheduled for Jan. 12. The surgery follows seven rounds of chemotherapy treatment.
The recovery will be lengthy, said his mother, Christine Farley. It includes eight to 10 weeks in the hospital, five weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment through June. “It’s a solid nine months,” said Farley of Portsmouth.
“He’s got the best attitude. We pulled him out of college, away from all of his friends. He never complained about it,” Farley said, describing her son’s maturity as “this is a job I have to do.”
There was “only one bad night” in late September after his 20th birthday when he questioned why this had happened to him.
Farley stood in the league headquarters next to Joan Pierce, Matt’s “bonus Mom,” and Farley’s husband, John, Matt’s “bonus Dad,” as the family calls the step-parents. Matt’s dad, Steven, of Acushnet, also stood proudly in the family circle.
“This has definitely been a uniting experience. We’re all there for him,” Joan Pierce said.
His siblings include brother Zachary Pierce, 14, and sister Cassidy Silva, 21, Joan’s daughter.
Matt said he was inspired to join the military as a young boy.
He said he was 6 years old living at a Marines base in Hawaii where his father, a Naval officer, was stationed, when terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Military squads were sent to protect Matt’s elementary school.
“I saw the Marines and I thought I want to be like these guys because they’re protecting us,” said the 6-foot Pierce, who has lost his hair from chemotherapy treatments over the past few months.
Looking to the future, Pierce said when he returns to Norwich University, hopefully in September, he’s considering shifting his major to criminal justice to enter the law enforcement field. It’s a contingency in case his post-operation medical status prevents him from qualifying for the military.
During the Marine Corps League’s informal and heartfelt ceremony, Young Marine Sgt. Joshua Paquette of Tiverton, who headed a four-person contingent in olive uniforms from the Battleship Massachusetts, presented Pierce an encased 50th anniversary flag that flew over the Massachusetts. He also brought a certificate of authenticity signed by Battleship Executive Director Brad King.
George Donnelly, a senior Marine Corps League member, gave Pierce a colorfully engraved “challenge coin” that league members carry with them as a memento of their affiliation. “We wish you luck with your surgery,” Donnelly told him shaking his hand.
“Awesome. Thank you very much,” Pierce said, as more than a dozen league members in their red jackets with gold trim stood behind them.
One notable person in the crowd Aldridge introduced was Jane Van Gyzen of Dighton.
She is a mother of the late Marine Lance Cpl. John J. Van Gyzen IV, who was killed in Iraq on July 5, 2004. The Marine Corps League, #1285, Van Gyzen detachment headquarters, is named for the young Marine who died at age 21.
Afterwards, standing next to his son, a 2014 graduate of Portsmouth High School, Steven Pierce described the rough time at the outset of Matt’s sophomore year at Norwich.
“Matt’s always been a really good boy,” he said.
“He grew up a lot and grew up in a lot of good ways,” said the retired Naval officer now a professor at the Naval War College in Newport. He said with all his son went through “it makes you stronger and tougher,” and more prepared for what is ahead.
Matt Pierce said he’s putting his trust in the medical team that will work to remove his brain tumor and cancer. “Those guys are the varsity players of Dana-Farber,” he said appreciatively.
He said his first two years at Norwich University gave him the training that “taught me how to embrace bad situations.” He said his school friends have been supportive and “are always happy to see me” when he’s visited.
“I just have a great family, great people backing me up,” he said after the ceremony.
He showed appreciation for his new military family.
“I’m very humbled because before yesterday I never met these people before,” Matt Pierce said. “I’m extremely overjoyed that they would do something like this for me.”