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Guest blog by Angela Costa, Community Investment Analyst, CSX

As part of CSX’s Pride in Service initiative, which is focused on supporting the military community, veterans and first responders, I’ve been fortunate to volunteer at some really moving events that not only touched my heart, but positively touched the lives of many families. My latest service experience — and one of my favorites to date — was the Operation Homefront Back-to-School Brigade here in my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. This was a special event, not only because of COVID-19 and the new “drive-through” protocols, but because I got to meet some amazing families and volunteers. In fact, I got to sit down with Sarai Pagan, an Operation Homefront volunteer who — along with her seven kids! – have also benefited from the program in the past. I love how she is creating a cycle of service by giving back to others like her. In hearing her story, I learned firsthand what this program means to military moms. Check out our conversation!

When did you learn about Operation Homefront?

My brother is a Marine, and as a military sibling I joined a pen pal program where I met my husband, David, who is in the Navy. As our family grew, we became involved with Operation Homefront when my husband was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. Since then, we’ve lived in various locations including Virginia, Guam and now Jacksonville, where we’ve stayed in touch with Operation Homefront.

Both Angela Costa & Sarai Pagan prepping for military families to receive their school supplies at the 2020 Jacksonville Back-to-School Brigade.

How did Operation Homefront support you and your family?

While stationed in California, we heard about the Holiday Meals for the Military, Operation Homefront’s kits for military families that include everything you need for a holiday dinner. As a young, growing military family, having a meal given to us meant that we could repurpose that money on rent or other bills and still have a wonderful holiday. This served as a huge financial benefit, but it also meant a lot to receive such a thoughtful gift. We also participated in an Operation Homefront Star-Spangled Babies baby shower where we received a rocking chair, which was a great feeling as this was the first one I had for any of my children!

What made you make the transition from benefiting from these incredible programs to volunteering to help other families like yours?

While we were stationed in Virginia, my husband moved up in rank in the Navy, and our family became more financially stable. We wanted to pay forward the support we’ve received and help younger military families that needed it now more than ever. I jumped in full force – I made myself and my family fully available for Operation Homefront for anything they needed, from picking up supplies, to volunteering at events, and even organizing our own events.

What has stood out to you the most, as a volunteer?

While my family and I were on the USS Gerald Ford, I organized and set up the ship’s first-ever Star-Spangled Babies baby shower. Operation Homefront helped contribute to the baby shower in which everyone went home with about $350 worth of items for each of the families participating. These families weren’t expecting anything of this magnitude, and the way Operation Homefront showed up was truly incredible. Every family walked out with items they needed to start their families, including car seats, strollers, and pack ’n plays. They no longer had to worry about how to pay for these items on their own.

How has the need for these services changed or increased due to COVID-19, and how have other military spouses been handling the pandemic?

Operation Homefront’s Back-to-School Brigades help alleviate the anxiety for families struggling to pay for supplies like backpacks, notebooks, etc., for the upcoming school year. It has been devastating to see the pandemic take a toll on military spouses – many of whom lost their jobs and critically need this support. This, plus the uncertainty surrounding school this fall, makes these events even more meaningful this year. I’m also familiar with Operation Homefront’s other services, such as Critical Financial Grants for basic family needs like bills and car repairs. This organization has really supported military families throughout the pandemic.

Sarai and her husband, David at the 2020 Back-to-School Brigade in Jacksonville, Florida.

What advice do you have for other military families who may have similar needs that you did?

As both a past beneficiary family and a current volunteer of Operation Homefront, I’ve learned that the support from this organization is unlike any other. It’s really important that military families, especially young ones, take the help that is given and not be prideful, rather than face the financial and emotional challenges of being a growing military family alone.

Thank you, Sarai, for your insights and for taking the time to share your story. From all of us at CSX, we thank you and your family for serving our country and perpetuating that service through your support of other military families.

Through Pride in Service, our signature community investment initiative supporting military, veterans and first responders, CSX supports Operation Homefront’s Critical Financial Assistance grants, Back to School Brigades and Star-Spangled Babies programs. I had no idea when I met Sarai that she or those she knows had benefited from each and every one of these awesome outreach efforts! With organizations like Operation Homefront and community members like Sarai, we can connect our country’s military, veterans and first responders to what they need, when they need it most.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many military families. Army Veteran Nicole Walcott and her new business were significantly impacted during this time.

For the past three years, Army veteran Nicole Walcott has been building up her alternative health and wellness business in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The business was born due to a back injury she endured after a Humvee accident as a specialist, while stationed in South Korea. She and her husband, Joshua, had met in basic training, and both were in Korea when the accident occurred. They eventually were stationed in Fayetteville, where both were honorably discharged as service-disabled veterans in 2014.

Joshua became a police officer and Nicole began working in economics, which was her background before entering the service. But after having her two children, she learned that she had degenerative arthritis in her spine, likely the result of the accident. She lived daily with debilitating pain.

She was at a retreat to get yoga teacher certification for first responders when she discovered float therapy.

“I got out of the tank and I told one of the officers who had come with me for the certification ‘I literally was like I have to get this back to Fayetteville. I did research and there was nothing within 90 miles of us and my business brain turns on. As quickly as I could, I got together some of my own capital, I found a private investor and we opened our doors in December of 2017.”

Called Shanti Wellness, Nicole’s business paid for 90 percent of the family’s bills. She was expanding with military contracts and she and her partners planned on adding cryotherapy. But in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused shut-downs of businesses nationwide, especially service-related ones like Shanti Wellness, Nicole’s family was left without the majority of their income.

”Things like this you can’t see coming,” Nicole said. “You can’t prepare for this. We aren’t even three years old. I told my husband I could understand a 30 percent revenue but we were at a 95% revenue drop overnight. It was insane, I couldn’t believe it.”

She read about Operation Homefront’s Critical Financial Assistance (CFA) program during a search for grants and loans to help businesses and veterans. She applied for assistance in both April and May. Thanks to generous donors, Operation Homefront was able to help Nicole pay more than $2,100 for food assistance, utilities, and car payments in April. In May, her family received $1,400 for rent assistance.

“We were so thankful because now that those bills were taken care of for April, we didn’t have to worry about how we would pay all these other business bills,” she said. “That’s one of the problems. There’s help for individuals and personal bills, nothing for businesses and business bills and we still have all of that to pay for. Honestly, (Operation Homefront) was the biggest help to us. It was a huge financial burden lifted.”

Nicole said she was worried about being able to keep the utilities on for her business to be able to open in June, if restrictions were lifted. Not having the business is not just a financial burden, but there are all those clients who will be without their pain relief.

The fact that she was able to get the help in funding she needed, spurred her and other small business owners to start a GoFundMe account for owners who could not get help. So far, they have helped raise $500 for two owners. The goal is to make sure all Fayetteville businesses have a shot of staying open, something she sees could be a ripple effect stemming from Operation Homefront helping her business.

“If we survive that’s fantastic,” Nicole said. “But it’s going to be a long road. If we’re the only business standing downtown, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has to make it.”

 


We are grateful to the following partners who support our Critical Financial Assistance program and help military families get through their short-term, financial struggles so they do not become long-term chronic challenges:

Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient Troy Wesley watched as circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic diminished his family’s income and left him wondering how to stretch the family budget to feed his family of five.

Troy was furloughed from his job as a security guard when the bank where he worked closed its lobby to the public. His wife, LaQuanna, was also furloughed from her job as a police officer in Greenville, Mississippi, because of budget shortfalls after the city’s main business, a casino, was forced to close because of the pandemic.

Troy also had to shutter his barbecue catering business when supplies became unavailable.

The family’s expenses had increased with their three children –a 14-year-old son and 17-year-old twins –home schooling, and Troy stressed about how to stretch his VA disability pay cover all the family’s expenses.

“It was tough times,” he said. “I do everything I can for my family, and it feels bad when I can’t provide.”

In May, Troy applied for Operation Homefront’s Critical Financial Assistance (CFA) program, and thanks to generous donors, the family received a $250 gift card to buy food. He felt relieved and thankful.

“I’m grateful for what Operation Homefront has done for me and my family,” he said.

He explained that Operation Homefront (OH) assisted with home-repair expenses three years ago when the family’s home needed a new roof.

Clockwise from bottom left: Troy Wesley; wife LaQuanna; son Tyler Moore, 14; and twins Kaleb and Kalan Lockett, 17.

“My oldest son had passed away, and I was in a dark place at that time,” Troy recalled. “The help from Operation Homefront lifted me.”

Troy joined the Army ROTC when he was in college at Mississippi Valley State University. “A lot of people I admired had served, and I was inspired by the different world they had.”

He served 20 years and worked as a military police commander, earning the rank of major. He was deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2005 in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He earned a Bronze Star for his service there as a commander of soldiers who patrolled 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Troy lives with PTSD and the effects of a leg injury he suffered in Iraq when he was run over by a piece of equipment.

He appreciates Operation Homefront and its donors for honoring and helping service members.

“The help (Operation Homefront) provides is important to my family and all other service members who have served this great country,” he said. “The donors who make this help possible are true patriots.”

 


We are grateful to the following partners who support our Critical Financial Assistance program and help military families get through their short-term, financial struggles so they do not become long-term chronic challenges:

We are honored to have been a part of helping the Woodard family on their journey to a strong, stable, and secure future.

Coast Guard veteran Joshua Woodard and his family did so well in Operation Homefront’s Transitional Homes for Community Reintegration (THCR) program that they were able to leave early, buy their own home, and become the program’s first graduates.

Launched in 2018, THCR helps veteran families, in collaboration with caseworkers and financial counselors, gain the knowledge they need to become successful home owners, and work to improve credit scores, pay off debt, and accumulate savings in order to buy their own home in these communities.

The Woodard family was the second family in Texas to be accepted into the program. In March 2019, Joshua, his wife Ravin, and their two boys, Elijah and Samuel, then 2 and eight months, respectively, moved into a THCR home in Katy, a suburb outside of Houston.

“Thank you,” Ravin said to Operation Homefront and the donors. “We have grown as a family and focused on bettering our future because of everything you have done.”

Living rent free in the newly built, three-bedroom, two-bath home, allowed Joshua to focus on earning his degree , while both could spend more time with their boys and becoming more involved at their church. The family was able to decrease debt by $17,400 and increase their savings by more than $20,000. This gave them the flexibility to buy their own home closer to their church and still live in the Houston/Galveston area.

Joshua is studying to become a dental hygienist, a new career path he had not expected to be on when he first joined the Coast Guard in 2011. He had planned on being in the service as a career but about two years later, doctors diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, irregular heartbeat that can lead to complications. Even after surgery his heart was not functioning properly, and he was medically retired.

The family was living in a cramped apartment, barely making ends meet, when they were accepted into the THCR program. Joshua and Ravin said the financial counseling they received helped them stay on target and teach them how to be in control of their finances.

Operation Homefront launched THCR in August 2018, thanks to a generous investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation and support from The Home Depot Foundation and others.  Our THCR program is currently accepting applications for the program for homes in Fuquay-Varina, NC (Raleigh), Katy, TX (Houston), and our newest home in Canton, GA. Help us get the word out about this incredible program. Learn more at www.operationhomefront.org/thcr

Jacob Richardson, wife Leanne, and kids Joshua and Emily, with family pet, Cupcake.

To become a good Army chaplain, Jacob Richardson wanted to learn about the Army and service members’ experiences from the ground up. So, with that in mind, Jacob enlisted two years ago.

This summer, the next step in his journey to chaplaincy begins as he transitions out of the Army, moves from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Texas to become a full-time student at the Dallas Theology Seminary and his wife Leanne goes back to work.

All of those changes are difficult enough but with the stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19, the Richardsons could not visit the areas around Dallas to find a home. The family found the stability they were looking for in Operation Homefront’s Transitional Homes for Community Reintegration (THCR) program.

Since 2018, THCR has helped families who are transitioning out of the military. The program added a home in Fate, Texas, a small-town just 40 minutes away from downtown Dallas. Leanne was already familiar with Operation Homefront programs like Back-to-School Brigade and Holiday Toy Drive so when the couple found saw the Texas THCR home so close where Jacob would be getting his master’s and she would be working in special education, they knew they had to apply. The Richardson family was accepted into the program and will move into the three-bedroom, two-bath home this summer.

“I feel a lot more comfortable with this,” Leanne said, than the option of trying to get housing without seeing the area. “I am definitely feeling blessed that we were chosen.”

Through THCR, the couple and their two children, Joshua, 7, and Emily, 4, will live in the home for two to three years. Jacob will work with a financial advisor to help them fully transition into civilian life and save money to buy their own home once they leave the program. The program is made possible with a generous donation from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation.

Jacob thanked the donors who make the program possible.

“We don’t know what we would have done otherwise,” Jacob said. “This transition period for us, with us switching roles for our family, and COVID definitely kind of threw a wrench into it, this certainly brought some peace to this whole process.”

Leanne added that it was a way to help them focus on getting their children settled, especially since she would be going back to work.

“Having this figured out and knowing the house we are going into, knowing it’s going to be a good one, that’s livable and safe, brings a lot of peace to our minds,” she said.

During his time in the Army, Jacob deployed for about a year to Syria. His time in the Army is not his first time in the service. He had been enlisted in the Marines for two years starting in 2006.

by Linda Medler, Board of Directors, Operation Homefront Brig. Gen. (ret.), USAF

I have been in the military for most of my life. I enlisted in the Marines out of high school, transitioned to civilian life to have children, while still serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. When I was ready to return to active duty, I was accepted to Air Force Officer Training School, and served in the Air Force until I retired with the rank of Brigadier General.

Over that time, I have served with many who gave their lives in defense of our nation, including those lost while I was serving at Hill Air Force Base, where we were always deploying airmen to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, we lost three airmen in one month to an IED attack, and a few months later, we lost another. As a leader, that is something you never get over.

When it hits that close, and you are in a leadership position, you have to look inside and say, ‘How do I help my organization and my unit go forward and recover from this — to lose four airmen on a single installation?’

To ensure that they would never be forgotten, a group of us from Hill Air Force Base entered the Air Force Installation Excellence Award Program, which comes with a cash prize to improve quality of life across the installation. We finished as one of the top award winners, and used a portion of our prize to build a Memorial Park at Hill Air Force Base in Utah as a way to memorialize the four airmen who died while serving our country.

I will never forget that Memorial Day when we dedicated the memorial. Airman and families of the fallen gathered together to grieve, to remember, to unveil the monument.

There is not a Memorial Day when I do not think back to that dedication and the Memorial Park that will forever honor the legacy of these fallen heroes of the 75th Air Base Wing.

I urge all Americans to take part in honoring those we have lost by joining the national moment of remembrance. You can participate by pausing for a moment of silence at 3 p.m. local time on Monday afternoon.

In memory of those we have lost, and in honor of those who proudly serve, please join me in standing with our nation’s military heroes.

 

 

by John I. Pray, Jr., President & CEO, Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)

Memorial Day is a special day for America as we honor those who have died while serving our great nation. It is especially important for me, on a very personal level, because of my father. John I. Pray, my father, joined the Army in 1938 after completing the ROTC program and graduating from Ripon College in Wisconsin. After completing many months of training, he married the love of his life, my mother, LaVerne G. Wilson in June 1940, and the Army immediately sent the newlyweds to their first posting in the Philippines, arriving in September 1940. With tensions mounting in the Pacific and war looming on the horizon, the Army returned many family members, including my mother, back to safety of the “states” in February 1941.

John I. Pray, Sr, pictured here during training in the Philippines just prior to the start of World War 2.

War broke out on December 7, 1941 and after many months of intense fighting, the U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered on April 9, 1942. Approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops, who were already suffering from lack of food and disease, were captured and forced to make a 65-mile march to prison camps. This infamous journey became known as the Bataan Death March – my father was among those soldiers. Thousands perished along the way and an estimated 20,000 soldiers, who survived the march, died in the prison camps from disease, malnutrition, and brutal treatment. My father survived – for three and a half years – and was ultimately repatriated in September 1945.

When I asked my father what sustained him through the many challenges he faced as a prisoner of war, he unhesitatingly told me faith…faith in his family, his country, and his comrades.

My father continued to serve his nation until he retired in 1969.

Each Memorial Day, my father would honor those he served with that did not make it home. He would remember them – their dedication and their lasting contributions to protecting our way of life. Not surprisingly, Memorial Day became and has remained a reverent occasion for our family as we look to remember the very profound contributions of many generations of service men and women and the family members who serve alongside them.

Looking back, I clearly see how my parents’ service and sacrifice inspired me to serve and guided every one of my major career decisions. I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities – as a member of the U.S. Air Force and as a member of the Bush Administration at the White House and more recently, as a member of the Operation Homefront family where I have the incredible opportunity to continue to serve those that serve.

So as we spend an extended Memorial Day weekend with our families, I would ask that you take a moment during The National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. (your local time) and remember that more than 1.3 million military members have died while serving our great nation. It is an opportunity to honor those who gave up all their tomorrows for our todays.

Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sebastian Lopez Barcelo was in crisis mode in March. As the COVID-19 pandemic caused shut-downs and stay-at-home orders, Uber drivers and freelancers like Sebastian quickly felt the impact. He began thinking of what possessions he could start selling.

“I drive Uber and I do freelance graphic design,” said Sebastian, who lives in Valrico, Florida with his wife and their two daughters. “I can’t make money because I can’t drive.

”The loss of funds compounded the financial strain that began last year when the family experienced several medical issues. One of his daughters, who is special needs, was hospitalized with a blood cancer scare. They have been paying co-pays, co-insurance and medical bills since then. Both of his teen daughters also needed to get glasses.

Then, in April, Sebastian called the VA because he was feeling sick and even had symptoms that appeared to be a stroke and the same as COVID-19. He was tested for COVID-19, given an MRI and a CAT scan. Results were negative for COVID but he did have a respiratory infection. The stroke symptoms turned out to be Bell’s Palsy. And on top of all of that, his car needed emergency repairs.

All of this stress weighed even heavier on Sebastian as funds dried up and two months passed without paying the mortgage. For Sebastian, who spent 22 years serving his country, including at least seven deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, not being able to provide for his family took him to a dark place, emotionally.

He recalled Operation Homefront(OH)from a resource list he got when he retired from the Air Force in 2018. He applied to the Critical Financial Assistance (CFA) program, and thanks to OH’s generous donors, they were able to help him pay more than $3,400 in mortgage and utility payments for April and an auto payment of about $340 in May.

“What(Operation Homefront) did for me, I just don’t have words,” Sebastian said. “I don’t know how to say thanks enough. Operation Homefront and your donors took my stress level from a rollercoaster ride to total relief, at least for this month. My house is paid up and I’m not going to be charged late fees. The electricity and water are paid off, and our internet bill too, so the kids can have their school work done. I Just want to say thank you for everything. I don’t have any words for what that means to me.”

Sebastian with his wife Cindy and their rescue pup, Lola.

 

Learn more about our Critical Financial Assistance program or apply at www.operationhomefront.org/cfa

Hear the latest update from our President and CEO on our COVID19 response

Nathan Nenninger was in sixth grade when the Sept. 11 terrorist attack occurred. The event impacted him so greatly that when he was about to graduate high school, he joined the Army National Guard.

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That was 11 years ago, and since then, Nathan has spent much of his service on active duty orders, including deployments to Afghanistan in 2016 and a recent deployment to Iraq in 2019. He just returned to his wife and three kids from the Iraq deployment and was set to begin new orders on April 1.

Those orders were put on hold because of COVID-19. Then some of the family’s financial struggles at home surfaced and he started worrying about paying his bills. He was already behind because the military had mistakenly paid him too much and they garnished part of his recent checks. He started looking at possible overseas contracts—anything to be able to pay his bills.

He received a list of resources from the Army National Guard and found Operation Homefront. He applied  to the Critical Financial Assistance (CFA) program and was relieved to receive the support. Thanks to our generous donors, Nathan was able to pay more than $3,300 in rent and utilities.

“Operation Homefront has really helped me pull myself out of that hole,” he said. “It could have spun way more out of control than it did. To the donors being able to supply the funds, I don’t have words for it. It really did make all the difference in the world for me and my family. We didn’t lose the house or have utilities shut off.”

Nathan said now he will not have to worry about whether his family is taken care of as he proceeds to St. Louis on orders to help Missouri in their fight against the novel coronavirus.

“At this point, I’ve secured these orders. Operation Homefront really was that conduit, that in between piece. I got home from Iraq and due to this worldwide pandemic, I couldn’t go straight to work. Being the sole provider with three kids, I just did not know where to turn, and Operation Homefront and your donors stepped up. They provided that buffer and made all the difference, especially for my wife and kids.”

The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on our nation’s military families.  Over the past two months, Operation Homefront has seen a significant increase in requests for financial assistance. We are doing our best to serve those who have been there for us in our country’s time of need. It’s our turn to be there for them. The military families we seek to serve need us now, more than ever. View a message from our CEO to learn more or visit our website and give to a current need today!

If you’re a military family in need of assistance, please go to www.operationhomefront.org and click on Get Help Now.

In 2018, Operation Homefront partnered with CSX, a premier transportation company, as a part of the CSX Pride in ServiceTM initiative to further our mission to build strong, stable and secure military families. With support from CSX, we have hosted Star-Spangled Baby Shower and Back-to-School Brigade events – providing meaningful connection points and essential services for military families. We are also able to provide critical financial assistance for military families in need across CSX’s 23-state footprint. In this guest blog, we asked one of CSX’s very own employees, Will Lahnen, to share how the cycle of service has continued through his life and career.

My Pride in Service story begins long before CSX rallied employees in a shared social mission to honor and serve those who serve; it began with my first job, serving in the U.S. Navy. After a decade in the Navy and now a decade with the railroad, I can reflect on the ongoing cycle of service that I’m proud to have been a part of.P-3

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, I made the decision to serve on nuclear submarines. My seven years of active duty service was highlighted by deploying on five patrols aboard the USS Maryland. As a native of Jacksonville, Fla., I jumped at the opportunity to begin my professional career with CSX once my military duties had been fulfilled. I currently serve the Senior Director of Facilities Management.

Many people don’t realize how similar the military and rail industry really are. In both professions, there is a fundamental importance of running operations safely, efficiently, effectively, and on time. And, although the sense of solidarity and camaraderie that comes in serving in the military is unparalleled, I did not expect to experience such a strong sense of community and collaboration among my colleagues when I joined CSX.

What I will never forget about my transition from the military to the civilian workforce was the outpouring of support from other veterans willing to share their experience and networks to give me a leg up. After completing my service, I looked to others who had been in similar situations and were now experiencing success in civilian life. While being a part of the Navy had limited my ability to job hunt and network with others early in my career, I was able to lean upon the same men and women I had looked up to in the past who, again, helped me to get where I am today. From that time forward, I have tried to return the favor to newly transitioning veterans by sharing my transition story and offering advice. This has become even easier through impressive organizations like Operation Homefront and others which which I am involved in.Corporate Run

Pride in Service – CSX’s initiative to honor and serve this nation’s military, veterans and first responders – has offered a consistent opportunity for me to jump in and help out. I’m just one of more than 3,500 other veterans, active military and first responders who have chosen to work at CSX. This initiative has instilled a sense of pride and purpose in employees across our 23-state footprint. I’m sure I speak not just for myself, when I say I’m committed to carrying on the cycle of giving back to others who continue to serve our country and our communities. The opportunity Operation Homefront and our other four Pride in Service nonprofit partners provide for us to continue to serve others, while thanking them for their services is invaluable.

At CSX, “pride in service” is something we all share, because the rail industry is part of the backbone of America. Moving essential supplies is our business, and our mission is now more critical than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a company and as individuals, we are pouring our passion into supporting military families that may be separated from loved ones and first responders who are on today’s frontlines of the pandemic. I’m honored to be part of a community that so closely aligns with the sense of pride I felt serving our country day in and day out. To me, whether through CSX or with the comrades I made in the Navy, giving back will always be a part of my being.

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