FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Shortly before heading off to war in Iraq last year, Master Sgt. Albert Brown had one last family matter to attend to, a quiet heart-to-heart talk with his then-12-year-old stepson, Ty Kenney.
"He said I have to take responsibility and be the man of the house," Kenney said.
His mother, Staff Sgt. Octavia Brown, had already deployed overseas with the 101st Airborne Division — also bound for Iraq.
With both parents gone, Kenney and his two younger sisters were left in the care of their maternal grandmother, Joan Swinson.
Soon, however, a life-threatening situation developed that would test the strength and character of any adult — let alone a 12-year-old.
Swinson, a diabetic, began having problems with her sugar levels, and her health deteriorated. Sometimes she became listless, or her speech was slurred. More than once she fell into a diabetic coma.
It was then that young Ty Kenney took control. "I feel I had to take all the responsibility," he said.
‘This kid is amazing’
Concerned that his grandmother needed immediate medical attention, Kenney called 911 more than 20 times, according to officials at Blanchfield Army Hospital at Fort Campbell.
Paramedics made repeated trips to the house, and always found the boy waiting by the door.
"He was always very calm, very cool, never panicked," said paramedic Teresa Herndon. "This kid is amazing. He was a grown-up in a kid's body."
What surprised medics most was Kenney's level of knowledge about diabetes, and his hands-on involvement in caring for his grandmother.
"The kid's selflessness was so sincere.... You couldn't help looking at this kid and go, are you for real?" Herndon said. "I wanted him to be my son."
Before heading off to Iraq, Kenney's parents had taught him how to test Swinson's blood sugar levels, and to give her medicine, juice or sweets to moderate her condition.
But, Kenney also learned more on his own. "I didn't like my kiddie books or nothing, so sometimes I would read Grandma's diabetic books," said Ty.
Whenever paramedics arrived at the home, Kenney was ready with his grandmother's latest sugar readings, and even her weekly and monthly averages. He also had mastered her glucose-testing machine, the same one used by the paramedics.
"And he's there pushing buttons, making this machine do things I didn't even know our machines did," Herndon said.
While overseas, Kenney's stepfather would call home whenever he could. He worried about his children and Swinson's medical condition, but during one call found himself being reassured by a seventh grader. "Ty said, ‘hey Dad, she's in good hands. I will let you know if we need you.’"
Helped save a life
Kenney, meanwhile, said he always worried about his parents' safety in Iraq, but over time became more comfortable watching over his grandmother and her diabetes while they were gone.
"At first I would wish they were there to help me, but then as I started to learn the stuff better I knew that I was able to do it on my own, and I didn't need help every single time," he said.
Kenney is now widely credited for saving his grandmother's life more than once.
"He helped save a life, mine, my life, yes indeed," said Swinson, who is now recovered and back to work at the base commissary.
"I believe, seeing Grandma today, that he was the difference between life and death," said his proud stepfather. "Thank God he was there for us."
After being away for months, both parents finally returned home to Fort Campbell. "It took a couple hundred pounds off my shoulders," Kenney said. His mother, however, has already been re-deployed to Korea.
Master Sgt. Brown, the stepfather, said he regrets Kenney had to carry such a heavy burden, adding, "He went from a boy to a man," that year.
He also promised he would never put Kenney in that position again, even if re-deployed to defend the country.
"I really feel bad if I have taken his childhood away by growing him up so fast," said Brown.
For his calm under fire on the home front, Ty Kenney received the first-annual life-saving award from the paramedics at Fort Campbell.
When they were considering whom to honor during National Emergency Medical Services Week, the decision was easy.
"I know on our shift when he talked about it, we were like, 'It's gotta go to Ty,'" Herndon said. "There was not even a runner-up."
The award was presented at Kenney's school. For him, his parents and his grandmother it was a big surprise. Brown said he had no idea why they had all been summoned. "Usually when the school principal calls, you're thinking, oh, what did he do this time?"
After his name was announced, Kenney walked to the front of the assembly to receive his award, as his grandmother beamed. "I was there. Tears came to my eyes. I was very pleased that he got that."
"Oh, I was happier than he was," his stepfather said.
With rescue squad members standing behind him, Kenney gave a brief speech and had his picture taken.
"I feel proud of myself, that I did the right thing," he said of the award. "It all turned out for the best, and my grandma is still here with us."
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent.