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Inspired airman starts bone marrow drive at JBLM

Salute to Life program has registered over a million U.S. military personnel

Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Helpenstell, along with her airmen, organized a two-day Salute to Life, C.W. Bill Young DOD Marrow Donor drive Jan. 3-4 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Mary A. Andom

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After learning a colleague's son was battling leukemia and needed a lifesaving bone marrow transplant, one 446th Airlift Wing servicemember sprang into action.

Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Helpenstell, 446th Airlift Wing Security Forces Logistics Superintendent and King County corrections officer, researched how she could donate her bone marrow and came across the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program called, Salute to Life.

Since 1991, Salute to Life has registered more than one million U.S. military personnel, family members and Department of Defense civilian employees to become bone marrow and stem cell donors.

"I am Security Forces; we save lives," Helpenstell said. "But this is different. Anyone can save a life and have a direct impact."

Without hesitation, Helpenstell joined the registry, but she was compelled to do more.

"I picked up the phone and called the headquarters office and asked how to start a donor drive here," she said.

Weeks later, Helpenstell received everything needed: informational pamphlets, manila folders equipped with buccal (cheek swab) kits and instructions on how to sign up other members.

Helpenstell's efforts culminated in a basewide bone marrow donor recruitment drive Jan. 3-4 at the McChord Field Exchange. Designated 446th Airlift Wing representatives also were available to register personnel and collect kits during January's Unit Training Assembly Jan. 5-6.

Helpenstell also spread the message by speaking at unit briefings to solicit help. As a result, 16 volunteers stepped up to serve as unit representatives for the drive.

The process to register can be done in a manner of minutes. Interested registrants, between the ages of 18 and 60, will fill out a consent form, health history information and provide a cheek swab sample. The packets will be returned to unit representatives for processing and submission to Salute to Life.

For some, the process stops there. A small percentage of registrants who are found to be a match will be contacted immediately to provide a full medical exam. Donors could provide bone marrow within a few weeks or months of being contacted.

According to, donation takes place two ways. The first is the traditional marrow donation where an individual goes to a hospital and -- under anesthesia -- marrow cells are extracted from the hip bone with a needle.

The second method is referred to as peripheral blood stem cell, or PSBC, donation -- a five-day process during which individuals spend several hours with an apheresis machine. It takes blood from one arm, separates out some of the cells and returns the rest of the blood to the other arm.

Although Helpenstell acknowledged there are risks involved, she emphasized a much greater reward.

"It is a big decision, but I don't know anything more rewarding than this," she said. "It's a great feeling knowing you can save someone's life by doing something small. You are changing the lives of families."

For more information on the Salute to Life program, go to

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