Lyla’s Wish To Be a Navy SEAL Brings Strength...and Smiles
Lyla was a very competitive soccer player and a super active kid. But due to her genetic condition, this resilient Maui girl endured countless hospital visits and medications to control her daily seizures and uncontrolled movements.
Her wish experience brought her two days filled with pure joy — including a full afternoon of simulated SEAL combat training, followed by scuba diving instruction, an open-water dive, and a relaxed afternoon on a boat with her family in the waters near Ko‘olina. Together, they made cherished memories.
Lyla’s wish to be a Navy SEAL was made possible with support from the Show Aloha Challenge (SAC) Foundation, the Honor Watch Foundation, and countless volunteers. On Thursday, July 15, 2021, Lyla’s huge wish ‘ohana gathered in Kapolei, ready to help 12-year-old Lyla experience an unforgettable afternoon of SEAL training and simulated combat.
Her wish to be a Navy SEAL was brought to life by the team at Trident Adventures, a Navy SEAL-owned company on Oahu. Steve Kaplan, one of the founders of Trident Adventures, is a 16-year veteran and former Navy SEAL. Kaplan spearheaded the land and sea components of Lyla’s training, lending his expertise and skill while bringing his unwavering energy and humor to Lyla’s Navy SEAL wish experience.
While their team has helped wish kids experience ocean adventures before, this was the first time they'd simulated a Navy SEAL’s training — both in and out of the water — for a child. There is greatness inside of everyone; Lyla is no different,” shared Kaplan. ”My greatest joy in life is finding that greatness in someone, speaking life to it, and giving it a platform to shine.”
Lyla’s personal “SEAL Team” accompanied her on her special mission, first outlined for Lyla in a video starring cast members from Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. upon her arrival at the Kapolei training facility. Her team was made up of family members — including her brother Kenyon and her mother Julie — in addition to her long-time physician Dr. Greg Yim, a pediatric neurologist and Make-A-Wish Hawaii Board Member. Rounding out her team were her Make-A-Wish ‘ohana and the staff of Trident Adventures.
“We are so grateful to Steve Kaplan and his team at Trident Adventures, to the Honor Watch Foundation, the many volunteers from Dogs of War Airsoft Park & ProShop, and Trident Tactical Group for bringing Lyla’s wish day together. We wish to thank the Show Aloha Challenge for sponsoring Lyla’s Wish,” said Make-A-Wish President and CEO Trini Kaopuiki Clark. “Collaborations like these bring together a wonderful and diverse group of caring people, and together, we all had the opportunity to experience Lyla’s joy alongside her.”
It makes sense that this strong, resilient girl who once excelled at team sports would be drawn to the U.S. military’s most elite special operations force, known for their strength, stamina, and unbreakable bond to one another. Lyla has been in and out of the hospital since she was two when she was first diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. In the third grade, her medical condition forced her to leave her studies behind and, consequently, her many friends.
“With Lyla, it is no small matter desiring to become a Navy SEAL. She sees something in my beloved community within the SEAL Teams that she can relate to,” said Kaplan, noting that she’s no stranger to pain, suffering, and sacrifice and that SEALs bring purpose to these by being part of something greater than themselves. “She’s very much like me and my Navy SEAL brothers; she’s a fighter. But she’s so much more than that; Lyla’s the perfect blend of rugged toughness and lollipop sweetness, a true fighter and beauty with a heart of pure gold.”
“Before she was sick, we used to call her Little Miss Aloha,” said Lyla’s mother, Julie. “[She was] very competitive and super active.” Lyla’s sassy spirit and athleticism have been hampered by developments in her medical journey in recent years. Lyla began experiencing a troubling series of symptoms that signaled a difficult to diagnose and very rare genetic anomaly. Her symptoms have included daily seizures, uncontrollable movements, and sudden muscle weakness, necessitating the occasional use of a wheelchair and medications to keep them controlled.
Lyla and Dr. Yim
“Lyla’s choice to be a Navy SEAL for two days embodies their spirit,” said Dr. Yim. “The SEALs believe, “we all live with a shared purpose. The SEALs are so inspirational, and their team support for Lyla will last her a lifetime.”
Under Dr. Yim’s expert care, Lyla has been feeling better, and the prospect of returning to school has buoyed her spirits. Her recently stabilized condition has brought hope to Lyla and her family, and her wish has given them all something exciting to look forward to. Her teenage brother Kenyon wasn’t immune to the thrill of Lyla’s wish to be a Navy SEAL, and he stood close by her through much of the day, their bond evident to anyone looking on.
While she tried to play it cool, Lyla’s mother noted that Lyla was very nervous on the morning of her SEAL training. But it wasn’t long before she was soaking up the attention and enjoying herself. While a summer breeze lifted the combat netting strung between the tactical training facility buildings, Lyla and her team remained focused, despite the heat. They learned about basic stances, security sweeps, cross-cover, and conducting a primary sweep of a room to look for bad guys.
Lyla stepped outside to take a break and cool off as Kaplan, and his team closed all the windows to simulate nighttime training. Back inside, Lyla tried on a heavy helmet equipped with night vision goggles, and Kaplan adjusted the straps to fit her small head before turning off the lights. He asked if she could see, and she shouted enthusiastically, “I can!” though the room was cloaked in darkness.
Outside once again, Lyla got to practice throwing smoke-making devices, and strangely festive purple smoke billowed from them in the dry grass. Trident’s Steve Kaplan watched Lyla’s mission video with her for a second time that day, as her waiting SEAL Team looked. The video starred none other than Hawaii Five-O actor Alex O’Loughlin — in character as Hawaii Five-O Navy SEAL Steve McGarrett. O’Loughlin and his fellow actors told her: “All right, Lyla, good luck and God Bless!” and “We need your help, don’t let us down.”
Following the viewing, Kaplan and Lyla’s mother helped her into her snug-fitting, black tactical vest before heading out for a ride around the facility in the turret of a Humvee to embark on her mission. She was dressed in regulation combat fatigues, including items Kaplan had personally worn on SEAL Team missions in Iraq.
About 150 volunteers from Dogs of War, Trident Tactical Group and Trident Adventures played the role of “bad guys.” Lyla engaged in simulated combat, experiencing the thrill of her wish to be a Navy SEAL from her seat in the turret of a Humvee and later, on the ground, walking through the dusty, red dirt field behind the storefront and training facility.
The heat of the day and the landscape made Lyla’s wish experience seem quite real. The training facility is made up of outbuildings, small huts of various sizes, places to hide, and blockades built from wooden pallets and old tires — all in a fenced-off industrial area. Old helicopters decorate the parking lot — no more than a scrubby field out front — while real ones conveniently flew overhead as Lyla’s wish experience played out.
The day concluded with a medals ceremony, where Kaplan and his team pinned Lyla with a very real SEALs Trident, a Special Warfare insignia awarded to members of the United States Navy who have completed the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. She gratefully accepted her honorary designation, standing atop a camo-painted tank parked between the office on Cowpens Street and the parking area across from it.
The best part of the day was when Lyla got to relive her experience with many volunteers and interns who were excited to hear about her wish from her perspective. She was thrilled to make up for lost social time due to the pandemic and years of illness that have kept her out of school.
“She’ll be talking about this forever. She will remember this!” said Julie, Lyla’s mom.