Meet the Soldiers Who Have Created a Lifesaving Network of Bone Marrow Donations in the Army

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January 31, 2024
Spc. Christian Sutton

Spc. Christian Sutton and his team of nearly two dozen other young soldiers have signed up nearly 6,000 troops as potential bone marrow donors since March 2022.

The effort by members of the Army’s rank and file fills a critical void amid a nationwide shortage of donors and has become one of the most significant grassroots health care initiatives in the service’s recent history.

In early January, Sutton — commonly referred to as “Bone Marrow Guy” on social media — was in the airport on his way to meet with Command Sgt. Major JoAnn Naumann, the senior enlisted leader for Army Special Operations Command.

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Meeting key Army leaders to lobby for expanding his team’s bone marrow registry to new units has effectively become Suttton’s full-time job in the service, one he created for himself.

His team, mostly young soldiers and all recruited through the Army forum on Reddit, have tried to make bone marrow donations — a relatively obscure practice in the medical community — commonplace in the Army.

“I’m very happy with where the program has gone,” Sutton, a 1st Armored Division soldier based out of Fort Bliss, Texas, told Military.com. “My mother died from Hodgkin lymphoma when I was four. She had to get a bone marrow donation, but couldn’t find a donor toward the end.”

The program is dubbed “Operation Ring the Bell,” a cover-all name for the grassroots Army effort that gets people signed up for Salute to Life, the Department of Defense’s official marrow donation program, which feeds the national registry, established in 1991.

While no other junior enlisted soldier has gotten the media attention Sutton has, he’s quick to point out that, while he spurred an impromptu Army bone marrow registry, he is now a cog in a machine that has become virtually service-wide.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer, the service’s top enlisted leader, said the effort of those mostly junior soldiers through the Ring the Bell campaign is “an enormous undertaking,” in a statement to Military.com.

First Lt. John McHale, assigned to 3rd Sustainment Command, established a program to make registering for voluntary bone marrow donation a standard part of processing for soldiers new to Fort Liberty, North Carolina. The in-processing includes a set of briefings seen by the thousands of soldiers who pass through the base each year.

“This is about getting the Army to save lives,” McHale said. “It has just been a real privilege to be part of this.”

Each year, roughly 18,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses that demand a bone marrow transplant. However, only about 30% of patients have a family member who is an appropriate match, according to data from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The likelihood of a patient being matched with someone in their lifetime is about 1 in 430, due to registered donor rosters not being robust and complications with finding matches among some ethnic groups.

The bulk of bone marrow donations are done through a process called a peripheral blood stem cell donation, a nonsurgical procedure. For five days leading up to the donation, donors get injections to boost the number of bone marrow cells in their bloodstream. Extraction is similar to blood donation.

One of the soldiers who signed up through Sutton’s “Ring the Bell” effort was recently matched with a patient who needed bone marrow. That soldier came from the very first registry created nearly two years ago.

“I don’t know how to wrap my head around where it’s at now,” Sutton said. “The ultimate goal is to make the Army the largest source of bone marrow donations in the United States.”

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