U.S. Army specialist, a Sumter native, leads campaign to increase participation in bone marrow registry


ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Maryland - A U.S. Army specialist who turned a grassroots bone marrow registration drive into a lifesaving Army-wide campaign spoke at the U.S. military's premier Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives (CBRNE) Command.

Spc. Christian Sutton addressed soldiers and leaders during the Commander's Forum at the 20th CBRNE Command Headquarters on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, on Feb. 5-6.

"The 20th CBRNE Command is establishing one of the first unit-driven programs that is going to empower their junior leaders and noncommissioned officers to take on these drives, to give these briefs and to register people themselves," said Sutton. "They will be directly responsible for saving lives."

Sutton leads a team of more than 20 soldiers in the "Operation Ring the Bell" campaign that supports the Department of Defense "Salute to Life" Bone Marrow program.

A native of Sumter, South Carolina, Sutton has a personal reason for his commitment to the bone marrow drive. His mother passed away from Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 4.

Spearheaded through social media platforms, the campaign has gained support of numerous senior leaders and formations across the U.S. Army. The campaign is named "Ring the Bell" in honor of a custom that marks when a patient is cancer free.

"Getting people on the registry is the way of not only saving the lives of those that need your specific donation right now, but also safeguarding your own future and the future genetic matches out there somewhere that might need your donation," said Sutton. "It increases the chances of hope for cancer patients either now or over the next several decades."

Since 2022 when he started the campaign, Sutton has personally registered more than 4,042 people, and his campaign team has registered 5,926. He hopes to establish the U.S. Army as one of the largest sources of bone marrow donations in the United States.

"Having a diverse and robust donor data base is the best way to protect American cancer patients as well as protect our service members. In the Army, we have a young, diverse and healthy population that can register more than are currently being registered. The Army alone could double the number of donors each year," said Sutton. "It's about service."

Attached to the 1st Armored Division on Fort Bliss, Texas, Sutton is working full-time for the Department of Defense Bone Marrow Registry and engaging with leaders at major Army formations across the nation.

He has worked with commanders and senior enlisted leaders across the Army and helped to shape policy.

"I really enjoy the idea of serving in a way that really makes a lot of impact on my heart and my idea of service," said Sutton.

Chad C. Ballance, the senior recruiter for the Department of Defense Bone Marrow Program, said Sutton is critical to the mission of increasing people on the donor database.

"It is inspiring to see a young private first class become a specialist and lead other young enlisted troops to step up to find that cause, to find that purpose and to help our program," said Ballance. "We have 500 DoD families every year diagnosed with fatal blood cancers, and 18,000 Americans are diagnosed with fatal blood cancers every year, and his campaign to help the DoD marrow program cannot be understated."

A native of White Cloud, Michigan, and retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant, Ballance said he has no doubt that the "Ring the Bell" program will become the No. 1 source of bone marrow donations in the DoD program.

Ballance said 1.3 million people have registered in the U.S. Department of Defense Bone Marrow Registry with more than 100,000 having a preliminary match.

"We have had 9,300 donors over the 33 years that the program has existed," said Ballance. "We are looking for that needle in the haystack, and we are looking for that perfect genetic match."

Ballance said the "Ring the Bell" campaign has been successful because it has been championed by leaders like Maj. Gen. Daryl O. Hood, the commanding general of the 20th CBRNE Command, and Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Silva, the 20th CBRNE Command senior enlisted leader.

Silva said the campaign will be implemented to reach soldiers, Army civilians and Army families stationed on the 19 bases in 16 states where 20th CBRNE Command units are stationed.

"The biggest takeaway for me about Spc. Christian Sutton and Operation Ring the Bell is you don't need rank or a position to make a big impact in the Army. All you need is passion and initiative," said Silva, a Master Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician from Long Beach, California, who has deployed seven times and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"As leaders, our job is to recognize soldiers like Spc. Sutton within our ranks, arm them with our support, empower them to do great things and then step back and be amazed at what's possible. He's changing culture, saving lives and ensuring all his efforts are integrated into Army processes so they are sustainable and repeatable," said Silva. "I'm so impressed with this young man and all he's accomplished. We have so much talent in the Army. The solutions to most of our challenges lie right within our formation."