FORT KNOX, Ky. – For most college students enrolled in ROTC, the promise of becoming a 2nd Lt. in the United States Army includes obstacles such as early morning PT tests, Basic and Advanced Camp Training, miles of rucking and navigating difficult terrain. For one recently commissioned officer from Penn State University, his time in ROTC included all of these thing – oh, and a 46-hour dance marathon to raise millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research and treatment.
Meet Kyle Rutter
This past May, Kyle graduated from Penn State with a degree in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a commission in the Army. Last summer, Kyle arrived at Fort Knox to participate in Cadet Leaders Course (now referred to as Advanced Camp) and has returned to serve as part of Advanced Camp tactics.
“My job is to primarily assist the companies that are going through the tactics phase by making sure the Cadre understand the purpose of the missions and what their Cadets are going to be accomplishing.”
But before he arrived for the second time in Kentucky to help serve Cadets and Cadre at Fort Knox, Kyle spent his senior year serving kids battling cancer through Penn State THON.
What Is THON?
Penn State THON is a yearlong effort to raise money for pediatric cancer that culminates in a 46-hour, no sleeping, no sitting dance marathon. From 6 p.m. on a Friday night to 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, all of Penn State is on their feet in support of kids battling cancer.
“The Penn State Dance Marathon, or THON, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world that raises money for the Four Diamonds fund, which is all about doing research and paying for treatment for kids battling pediatric cancer,” said Rutter. Since it’s conception in 1973, THON has raised over $130 million to support research and families battling pediatric cancer.
Out of the thousands that apply to dance in THON, Kyle was one of the 706 students selected, representing Penn State ROTC’s THON organization, Kaizen (which means “good change” in Japanese). Dancers are selected from either THON-focused university organizations or from an independent dancer lottery, which requires students to raise a minimum of $2,500 to enter.
“Penn State ROTC had a group whose sole purpose was to raise money for the dance marathon so I joined my freshmen year and continued to be an active member throughout my four years,” said Rutter.
“I was President my junior year but I think senior year was the most rewarding,” said Rutter. “I served as the Family Relations chair, which meant I worked with a family going through treatment at Hershey Medical Center.”
Coincidentally, for Kyle and the rest of Kaizen, he and his THON family shared a common interest. “The dad was an Army veteran and their son, Seth, loved every kind of weapon,” said Rutter. Together, Kyle served as a liaison between Kaizen and his THON family, updating his fellow Cadets on how Seth’s treatment was going while preparing Seth and his family for THON weekend.
To some Penn Staters, THON weekend can only be described as a feeling – a state of pure joy, excitement and pride. For the children battling pediatric cancer, THON weekend is an escape from the chemotherapy, the radiation and the sleepless nights. It is simply a time where a kid can be a kid.
With the minutes counting down until 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17, all 706 dancers, as well as the thousands of spectators and volunteers, sat in Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center for what would be the last time in a long time, eagerly awaiting what the next 46 hours would bring.
“None of it felt real at first,” said Rutter. “I didn’t really process what was happening until they said ‘Dancers, stand up!’” And with those three words Kyle’s 46-hour journey began.
To be clear, although it is called a dance marathon, this does not necessarily mean that you would find a college basketball arena filled to capacity with students doing the Macarena for 46 hours straight. Instead, you’d find kids laughing, chasing dancers around the dance floor with water guns in hand, dancers reading letters of support, and spectators of every size and shape swaying, shouting words of encouragement to their friends on the floor. Throughout the 46 hours, however, a line dance, created to promote stretching and boost morale is performed hourly.
“It was a great weekend,” said Rutter. “There was a surprise concert Friday night by DNCE and then there were more mini concerts from local bands and groups throughout the weekend.”
In addition to concerts and water gun fights, Kyle had plenty of support to keep him going – both on the floor and in the stands. “My brother was selected to dance independently, two other kids from Kaizen were dancing and three of my friends from a tour guide organization I’m a part of were dancing as well. I also knew a lot of people volunteering throughout the weekend.”
With the highs that came with THON weekend, there were also the lows. “Towards the end I was getting pretty tired,” said Rutter. “If someone wasn’t actively talking to me and if I wasn’t actively moving I would fall asleep on my feet. There was a concert going on for the finale and I was falling asleep in the third row while speakers were blasting in my face.”
But as the last few hours of THON weekend started to blur into one, Kyle was reminded of why he was there dancing in THON 2017.
“I’ve been to Hershey Medical Center with Seth while he was receiving his chemotherapy,” said Kyle. “I’ve seen what the money means to the kids receiving treatment on the other side, the family support they have to help and everything they provide – it’s almost too much to comprehend until you see a kid receiving treatment. An hour of cancer treatment without THON or the Four Diamonds fund would cost Seth’s family $20k. Because of this, of what we do, his family never sees a bill.”
46 hours, 706 dancers, over 15,000 volunteers and spectators, countless days spent fundraising and a few squirt gun battles later, Kyle helped to raise $10,045,478.44 for families fighting pediatric cancer.
“The motto of THON is For the Kids (FTK) and it sounds cliché, but once you’re doing it and you still have eight hours to go, the smiling kids next to you, squirting you with water guns and running around – they’re the reason you keep going,” said Kyle.
Life After THON
In the months that followed THON, Kyle graduated from Penn State and was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the United States Army. Before commissioning, however, Kyle strapped on his boots and rucksack and did what Cadets do best: marched. For 26.2 miles, to be exact. The ruck march, which was called the 2nd Brigade Freedom Fitness Challenge, was optional for those Cadets graduating in May.
When asked which was more difficult, dancing for 46 hours or rucking for 26.2 miles, Kyle didn’t hesitate to answer.
“The ruck was definitely harder,” said Rutter. “Not only did we not have little kids cheering us on, but I also started to develop bronchitis about half way through the ruck, which made it a little hard to breathe.”
Despite starting the ruck march at night, in the rain and after developing bronchitis Kyle finished the 26.2 miles in a little over seven hours.
As for the Future
Although his time at Penn State and with Penn State ROTC has come to an end, Kyle is excited to begin the next chapter of his life in the Army.
“I knew coming into the Army that I wanted a career that, before I settled down in the business world, I wanted to go and do something – to travel the world and challenge myself. I figured the Army was the best way to do that.”
After the last of the 18 regiments have come and gone through Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox, Kyle will head to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he’ll spend about a year participating in the Armored Basic Officer Leader Course.
“I’m really looking forward to being with people who are in the same branch as me, learning more about what we can do for the Army,” said Kyle.
As his days with Advanced Camp come to an end, Kyle had these few words of advice:
For the Cadets, “embrace your time here, whether it’s for Basic or Advanced Camp. Everyone complains – I know I did when I was standing in the sun, waiting to go into CIF and get my stuff. But you’ve got to get through it and if you try to have fun, I promise that it will go by much more quickly. Make friends with the people you’re with – you never know when you might run into them in the future.”
Although his time at Penn State may be over, Kyle intends on staying updated on Kaizen’s THON efforts.
“Even here at Fort Knox I’m still in contact with Seth and his family,” said Kyle. “I’ll continue to donate to THON’s cause and I hope to visit THON weekends in the future.”
Every Cadet that dreams of having a career with the Army knows the sacrifices that come with the different ranks and titles. Whether it’s for the kids, for the Cadets, or for his country, Kyle’s ready for whatever his future has in store.