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Local veterans advocate faces new battle with son

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD

It all started when Ayden Zeigler-Kohler collapsed three weeks ago at football practice.

"I'm dizzy," the 9-year-old said. "I'm dizzy."

Soon began doctors visits, which became more frequent as his symptoms quickly escalated . Ayden began losing some of his motor skills; his right leg dragged and became weak.

Ayden Zeigler-Kohler spends time at home resting, with his yellow-lab Zuko, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. The nine-year-old son of local veteran advocate Bill Kohler, is battling brain cancer.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Eventually, a scan found it: Ayden has brain cancer. He has two tumors in his brain, one of which is on the brain stem, said Bill Kohler, the Springettsbury Township boy's father.

So now Ayden's on to treatment. The family was at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday, and he'll start radiation therapy there soon, traveling down and back four or five days a week.

"I'm not giving up hope," said Kohler, a well-known veterans advocate around York County.

The community is seeing to that, he said.

The Springettsbury Township Police contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation on Ayden's behalf. The foundation, which grants wishes for kids with life-threatening medical conditions, then got in touch with Kohler, asking what his son wants to do.

"I wanna be part owner of the Steelers," Ayden said.

"He's going big," his father said.

Ayden loves sports: Baseball, rugby, all of them, but especially football. He's the quarterback and middle linebacker of his Pop Warner team, the squad he was practicing with when he collapsed. Football means the world to Ayden, a child his father described as affectionate, but who sometimes takes a minute to warm up to people.

Local veteran advocate Bill Kohler stays by his son Ayden's side almost constantly, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. The nine-year-old is battling brain cancer.  John A. Pavoncello photo

And that's yet another reason why this is so tough for the athletic boy: He's using a wheelchair, at least for now. Hopefully, treatment will shrink the tumors, which means he could, at least for a while, regain his ability to move around himself, Kohler said.

After a doctor appointment following the diagnoses, Ayden and his father hurried home so he could go watch his team's scrimmage with Dallastown. When they crested the little hill at the Springettsbury Township park where the game was being held, all the fans from both teams turned around.

"They just stopped and held up four fingers," Kohler said. Four — that's Ayden's jersey number. And now it's the name of the Facebook page in support of him: 4AydenStrong.

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The coach let him call some plays for the offense, and he's going to be doing so again Saturday; he'll be wearing a coach's shirt.

He's pumped about that, which is good, Kohler said; it's so important to keep a positive outlook.

"When he has people around, he’s a lot better," Kohler said. "When he’s by himself ..." Kohler trailed off, before continuing: "We try to keep people around him at all times."

Long time friend Harley Nelson, 9, left, plays video games while Ayden Zeigler-Kohler watches and rests, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. The nine-year-old son of local veteran advocate Bill Kohler, is battling brain cancer.  John A. Pavoncello photo

He said the community response has been remarkable; people keep calling, sending food, looking to help.

"It’s crazy how much the community stepped up," he said. "This is how people everywhere else should be."

Kohler previously owned the Never Forgotten BBQ restaurant on Eastern Boulevard in Springettsbury Township and worked on various projects designed to help vets. He is one himself, having served in roles ranging from combat engineer to medic in the Army during the first Gulf War and then again in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.

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He was in rough shape when he came back to the states a decade ago, with physical, mental and emotional wounds still fresh.

But Ayden's birth re-centered him.

"When he was born, he changed that," Kohler said. "Now I can't change this for him."

Bill Kohler is a man who readily shares his thoughts and feelings. The pain is clear in his voice as he talks about his son.

"He and I, we don't get separated," Kohler said. "He’s always by my side."

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.