Archive for April, 2019

Last week, Operation Homefront hosted our 2019 Military Child of the Year® recipients, our Magnificent Seven, and their families in Washington, D.C. for a three-day celebration.  Let’s take a look at their activity packed time in our Nation’s capital.

But before we do, it bears repeating how incredible these kids are! This year’s seven honorees have experienced a cumulative 31 moves and 187 months of parental deployments. But they also gave over 1,800 hours of volunteer time just in the year before they were nominated – among their many other accomplishments including stellar academic achievements, overcoming health challenges, becoming Eagle Scouts, being competitive in swimming and other sports. You can read more about each of them here. 


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How innovative can we be? The festivities kicked off Tuesday with Brandon Mammano , our Innovation Award recipient, touring the Innovation Center at Booz Allen Hamilton, who sponsored the award. After a tour, Brandon and his family brainstormed with the Booz Allen Hamilton project team on how to use technology to create a student sponsor program for military kids to welcome them when they move to a new community. Brandon told us, “It’s touching to me, how my tiny little idea can be turned into something ginormous.”


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Welcome to D.C.! On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. John I. Pray, Jr., Air Force (Ret.), President and CEO of Operation Homefront, welcomed all seven recipients at a welcome lunch before the kids, their families, and OH staff departed for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.  The kids enjoyed a behind the scenes tour where they got within feet of some beautiful male lions and seals (top secret – no pics allowed!) Afterwards, recipients, their families, and OH staff shared a delicious dinner before heading back to the hotel.


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Headed to the Pentagon! After a delicious breakfast with the staff and our National Board of Directors, the group headed off for a driving tour of the monuments and a tour of the Pentagon.


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The Main Event! After a few hours to relax back at the hotel, it was time for the main event.  John Heald, Brand Ambassador for Carnival Cruise Line, served as the emcee, and America’s Beloved Tenor, Daniel Rodriguez, sang the national anthem during the Presentation of Colors by JROTC cadets from T.C. Williams High School from Alexandria, Virginia.


MCOY 2019-43 (1)The Spotlight is on … the kids! John Pray started the program recognizing service members, veterans, and our military family members. Of the MCOY recipients, John said: “Each one possesses something very special — a driving force – a spirit of service and of serving others.  Individually, they shined as they dealt with parental deployments, relocations, and the many other challenges that often characterize military family life.  Along their journey, they have developed an inner compass that inspires them to give back, to lead, to volunteer, to advocate, and to care for others in their communities.”


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Multi-national supergroup King Calaway wows the audience! Musical guest, King Calaway, entertained our guests with two of their hit singles and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Daniel J. O’Donohue, director for joint force development for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, inspired guests with his keynote address. “Their parents couldn’t have continued to serve unless these children decided that they would fall in, that honor, courage, and commitment was part of their life,” said O’Donohue.


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All Branches Represented. VIP officers from each branch presented the awards to our honorees and paid proper tribute to their achievements and tenacity in spite of challenges of the military lifestyle. For the third consecutive year, Carnival Cruise Line surprised the MCOY recipients and their families with a free family cruise.




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One Last Musical Note. Before the evening ended, there was one more surprise in store for the Magnificent Seven.  CMT, country music artist Brantley Gilbert, and Peavey gave each of our seven honorees a fabulous Peavey guitar autographed by Brantley himself!


As we close out another year of celebrating military kids, we hope you will make plans to join us on April 2, 2020, for our 12th MCOY Gala.

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Special thanks to United Technologies Corporation, our presenting sponsor for the 2019 Military Child of the Year Awards Gala. Other gala sponsors were Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Carnival Cruise Lines, Military Times, La Quinta by Wyndham, PNC, MidAtlanticBroadband, and Nike.

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Elisabeth Lundgren was selling Girl Scout cookies when she suffered her first injury. She was already experiencing mysterious pain in her leg, but it was when she bent down to grab a box that the pain sharpened. Her knee gave out.

Elisabeth underwent surgery for a bucket handle meniscus tear in her knee. That type of cartilage tear is most often seen in adults older than 30.

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She was 8. The doctor called it a freak accident.

It took five years before Elisabeth finally received a correct diagnosis of Ehlers- Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue. Pain became a constant companion, something she often fights, and on most days, conquers.

Even as she battled pain and injuries and undergoing surgeries and physical therapy, Elisabeth maintained a 4.0 GPA through high school, became a champion swimmer and logged more than 200 volunteer hours in 2018.

Her success in the face of adversity helped Elisabeth, now a first-year biological sciences major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, win the 2019 Navy Military Child of the Year® Award.

ElisabethLundgrenhospital“I want to be someone who motivates other people, either through my actions or accomplishments,” Elisabeth wrote in her application essay. “I want other kids either who are diagnosed with Ehler’s Danlos or experience daily pain or are even recovering from an injury to know that they are not broken or weak. Keep fighting, keep smiling, and do the best that you can do in the moment because that is all you can ask of yourself.”

She credits her parents with the support she needed to succeed. Her mother, Connie, works for General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego supporting the construction and repair of Navy ships in the Pacific Fleet.

“I remember very vividly after my first major knee surgery, my mom carried me on her back so that I could play tag with my friends,” she said.

She calls her father, Kevin, her hero. Kevin, CMC EOD Group ONE retiring later this year, has served in the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal community for 27 years with 29 years active duty, completing several international deployments—three in war zones—and 23 years on sea duty.

“My Dad taught me how to be a warrior, but he also taught me how to be a role model,” she wrote. “In the water, I became a warrior athlete. While I knew I could never play sports on land given the risk, swimming was an option. I trained hard whenever possible and swam with knee braces and taped up shoulders.”

Elisabeth was using a cane when she started swimming her freshman year of high school. By the end of the season, she earned the Freshman Swimmer of the Year award and moved up to varsity level. She graduated with 16 league titles, represented her school in 14 California Interscholastic Federation finals, became the 2018 team captain, won MVP titles and was named 2018 female Swimmer of the Year.

As captain, her toughest challenge was leading the team after her friend and teammate, Ellen Erickson, died of cancer. After Ellen’s death, Elisabeth helped grow the cancer awareness club from 20 to 250 students and helped raise $13,000 for cancer research. Her dedication and positive attitude earned her the Ellen Erickson Memorial Award from South Bay Aquatics. ElisabethLundgrenSwim

Elisabeth now competes at the NCAA level and as a freshman recently broke a 19-year-old university record in the 200-meter backstroke.

Inspired by her dad’s military service, Elisabeth has helped him raise money for the EOD Wounded Warriors Foundation, and she has participated in local SUPERFROG and SUPER SEAL events to raise money for veterans. She became a USA Swimming athlete representative and private swim instructor to help address drowning prevention and mentor for other military children.

While the last decade has been filled with challenges, Elisabeth focuses on the triumphs — the times she beat the pain, her efforts to help others and the ways she has dedicated herself to making her family and community proud.

“As my Dad explained, you will be in situations you feel fear, you feel pain, you feel hopelessness,” Elisabeth wrote. “But never give up, because you can always do more than you think. That is what it means to be a warrior.”


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Maryland high school senior Campbell Miller had just started his Eagle Scout project to improve the school’s track for the cross country team when he got the news. His mom, National Guard Col. Allison Miller, had a new assignment. The family would be moving to Ohio.

It was the third time moving in high school. And while Campbell always looked on the bright side of moving, he did not want to drop the Eagle Scout project. He had planned on raising funds to get workout stations and mile markers along the trail. Without them, the teams had to go inside to get a workout and visiting students had a hard time keeping track of distances because nothing was marked. Each station was designed for multiple different exercises.

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“I wanted to give back to the school that had given me so much,” Campbell said. “All of my project planning, along with getting signatures from the board members and school facilities manager, had to be done over email and phone. It taught me a lot about communication and how important it is to be able to communicate in different ways.”

Campbell’s long-distance leadership on the project is just one of the many reasons he was named the 2019 National Guard Military Child of the Year® Award recipient.

Being in a military family has its own challenges but as the oldest son of a single mom, Campbell has often taken on the responsibilities of someone much older. During his mom’s frequent deployments, he has helped with his two younger siblings, he’s also escorted his mother to military functions and handled routine home and lawn maintenance.

Campbell has helped with his siblings during his mom’s frequent deployments, escorted his mom to military functions, and handled routine home and lawn maintenance. In his MCOY® applicant essay, Campbell wrote about two ways he had to grow up fast. In one instance, his sister became extremely ill while his mother was four states and 12 hours away. She needed immediate medical attention and Campbell took care of her. He also helped his younger brother navigate bullying issues after he started at a new school.

Moving and meeting new people has taught Campbell flexibility and resiliency.

“I have found the positives in attending three high schools in two years and consider it an honor to meet and get to know other teenagers from the south, the east and now the mid-west,” he wrote in his application essay. “I look forward to seeing how these opportunities will help me as I transition to college and later in life as an adult.”



He also has a love of advocacy and service, including through his church both locally and internationally. He has hundreds of service hours and has participated in mission trips to Ireland, Guatemala and Uganda. For those trips he had to raise more than 90 percent of the funds.

He has also been recognized for his outstanding leadership, service and maturity. He was chosen to be a Troop Senior Patrol Leader, student ambassador (at both schools in Maryland and Ohio), captain and starting player on his varsity baseball and cross country teams all while earning membership in the National Honor Society and taking dual college credit courses as a junior and senior.

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Now he can add to that list being named a MCOY® recipient, which rendered him speechless, he said.

“It is such an honor and quite humbling to know that my story matters and that all that we, as a family, have endured, actually means something to someone.  We know we are serving something larger than our family, but to feel appreciated for the sacrifices is a feeling I cannot describe.”

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When 13-year-old Jaxson Jordan found out that he had been named the 2019 Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® he got a coveted prize—his older brother’s favorite Operation Homefront hoodie given to recipients five years earlier when he also won the award.

“It’s time for me to welcome you into the MCOY family,” Jaxson said his brother Michael-Logan told him.Jaxson Jordan headshot

The seventh-grader was, for once, speechless when his parents gave him the news. They seemed so serious, his mom Rebecca Jordan setting up a video chat with his father Master Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Jordan, stationed in Okinawa. Jaxson credits his father with being an example of resiliency he strives to emulate. In 2006, Christopher Jordan was injured, and a fellow Marine killed in Iraq.

The challenge was one of many he and his family have faced. Even so, Jaxson’s approach to life is one with a hefty dose of humor, from dry or sarcastic to what some adults might consider a bit dark for a kid his age. But he realized that laughter, positivity and tackling problems head-on was the best way to cope after being diagnosed with nine overlapping autoimmune/inflammatory diseases at age 7.

More specifically, he has been diagnosed with: Systemic Onset Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, which attacks his organs; Polyarticular Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, which attacks more than five joints; Ankylosing Spondylitis; Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type III, a genetic disorder that affects joints and connective tissue; IgA Nephropathy Kidney Disease; Asthma; Interstitial Lung Disease; and Autoimmune Retinopathy and Cancer Associated Retinopathy, two very rare eye diseases. He’s also dyslexic.

“I bet you are googling these medical terms right now, aren’t you?” he wrote in an award application essay. “That’s okay. As many times as you have had to google these terms, I have had to retype this essay due to my dyslexia kicking in and my spellcheck having a field day!”

Along with his knack for making people laugh, Jaxson’s communication skills could rival the most seasoned salesman, as evidenced after his North Carolina neighborhood suffered the back-to-back devastation of hurricanes Michael and Florence. “I’ve got this,” he said when the principal of his sister’s school talked to him and his mother about trying to help victims.

Taking $100 he had saved and another $100 match from his mom, he went to a local Walmart. He walked out with $400 in supplies, food and clothing after the manager matched with his own $200.

Jaxson caught on quickly. He walked business to business, pitching his idea for hurricane donations, mentioning to each manager or owner that Walmart had doubled their amount through its own donation. Turning it into a friendly competition, Jaxson brought back $1,200 worth in donations to his sister’s school to kick off the donation drive.


Jaxson has used that strength, purpose, hope and a love of advocacy to benefit the Arthritis Foundation as a Junior Ambassador. On behalf of the organization, he works on grassroots campaigns, including going to Washington D.C. to meet his senator and congressman, organizes walks and is a mentor to other children, telling them about his own challenges and helping them through theirs.

Aside from Junior Ambassador Awards, he has received many accolades for his volunteerism and leadership roles including Presidential Volunteer Awards, Logan’s Heroes Honu Award and Lead Award for Outstanding Community Service and Leadership, and multiple volunteer appreciation awards.Jaxson Jordan
In the future he wants to help people with disabilities retain or regain their independence.

“Originally, I wanted to become a surgeon. However, I’m sure most people would prefer not to have a visually impaired person poking around in their insides!” Jaxson said. “Challenges are meant to be overcome. There’s always a way to greatness; always a way to get through challenges. You have to stay positive and spread kindness. When you spread kindness to people, they’ll spread it to others, and so on – like a ripple effect.”

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Children who have a military parent are often wise beyond their years. Many learn from a young age to be independent and resourceful because of their experiences moving around the world and living in different cultures, combined with the increased responsibilities they must assume when their parent is deployed.

Kylie McGuire, the 2019 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year® Award recipient, is a good example of how belonging to a military family has shaped her into a resilient, determined person who strives to succeed and to serve others. Here are a few life lessons she has learned in her 17 years:


1. Cherish family time when you can. “Being a military brat has taught me the true meaning and importance of family time,” Kylie said. “Other kids might take family dinners or spending your birthday with your parents for granted. I was taught to appreciate every second I got with my entire family together.”

“My happiest moments were every single time my dad came home after a long time away,” Kylie added about her father, retired Coast Guard Lt Cmdr. Austin McGuire. “Even if it was not the longest time he had ever been away, it always felt like he had been away for years, and I was so happy to hear his dumb dad jokes come in the door again.”

2. In tough times, lean on your family, friends, dog and school community or whomever you are fortunate to have in your life for support. “I think of my friends, they make me laugh until I cry and my abs hurt,” she said. “I do not know how I could make it through without their positivity and radiance. I think of my dog and how she will love me through any times. I think of my school, my second home, the place where I feel safe and embraced to be myself.”

3. Appreciate that your parents try hard to do what’s best for you. “My parents are my rocks and even though sometimes they get on my nerves, I know they will always have my back,” she said.

4. If a rule seems unfair, try challenging it. You may not succeed, but if you don’t try, you will definitely fail. Besides, it’s good practice for next time. For example, Kylie wanted to apply for a scholarship offered by her elementary school, but applicants are required to have attended for at least three years. “I appealed to the school on the grounds that as a military child, we moved so often, we could never be at the same school for three years, but my appeal was denied,” Kylie said. “I think schools could be a little more understanding.”

That incident speaks to the lack of awareness about the sacrifices military families make, she said. “Most Americans do not know that military kids struggle every day. It is hard to go through your day happy every second … knowing your parent will not be home tonight for dinner, probably will not make it to your birthday party, and will not be able to get leave to come home for a daddy-daughter dance.” Kylie McGuire - FamilyPicAug2018

5. Embrace the upsides of military life. Think of relocations “as an adventure and write a journal,” Kylie advised military children. “You will be living in places you never would have if your parent wasn’t in the military. You should explore your “home” town and you will see each place will expand your horizons and understanding of how truly large the world can be. You will meet many interesting people, and you will become more worldly, and in turn, you will be a better, more inclusive, more accepting person.”

Another benefit is the values and qualities you gain, she said. “I fight through every obstacle and challenge to show how strong I am, physically and mentally. I know this is what makes me who I am, and I thank my military lifestyle for instilling that in me.”

6. Do your part to help your family, especially during a parent’s absence, and your community because it is the best way to show respect for all service members’ bravery and willingness to put their lives on the line to protect our rights. “When my dad left, my mom was suddenly a single mom with three active boys and one sassy little girl,” said Kylie, who has one older and two younger brothers. Her father told her and her older brother before leaving that he knew they were capable of helping their mother while he was gone. That “motivated me to be my very best for me, my brothers, and my mom,” Kylie said. “They needed me more than ever. After my dad left, it was a rough transition for my family, but my mom especially had a hard time jumping into the single-parent lifestyle. I do not take any credit for what my amazing mother was able to withstand in those six years without my dad, but I did my very best to help around the house. I helped my younger brothers with homework. I cleaned the house for my mom while she was driving my brothers to practices. I kept challenging my older brother to push both of us to be our best, and I kept my family’s faith that my dad would be home soon enough.”

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Elisabeth McCallum Polleys’ passion for acting has exposed her to diverse roles, giving her insight into different eras, ways of thinking, and styles of interacting. Her love for theater is among the many facets of Elisabeth’s life that have made her an informed, well-rounded person, attributes that helped her become the 2019 Army Military Child of the Year®.

Elisabeth attends two schools in Michigan – L’Anse Creuse High School North for core courses in science, math and history and the Frederick V. Pankow Center for classes in performing arts and English, which requires an audition for admission. In her first year of high school, Elisabeth, now a junior, was selected for best debut performance for portraying Ginette in “Almost, Maine,” an uncommon honor for a freshman to have played a lead role. She landed the part in her first audition after moving to Michigan from Hawaii when her mother, an Army major, was reassigned.

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Initially, Elisabeth was uncertain about immersing herself in teenager Ginette’s character because it’s a love story, and she was afraid it would be awkward playing opposite her friend, another freshman, in the role of Pete. But looking back on it now, she is proud of her performance.

Elisabeth also was inducted into Pankow’s Thespian Troupe 7494, another rare honor for a ninth grader. She earns her place not just by acting but by helping with fundraising, working back stage or in the box office, ushering, building sets, and helping with costumes, makeup and hair. As a member of the troupe’s executive council, she and other students work hard to raise money because otherwise, they cannot produce performances. Serving also gives her the chance to mentor younger actors.




In 2018, Elisabeth played a wildly different role, a mother in 1917 England, in “The Light Burns Blue.” Again, it took time for her to embrace the role she initially could not relate to – a wife and parent to a teenager during World War I. The character evolves into “being that strong, independent woman that doesn’t need to just follow what her husband says,” Elisabeth said, which was easier to identify with. She said she channeled her own mother because she’s a good role model, raising Elisabeth as a single mom, with help from Elisabeth’s grandparents, while also serving in a demanding military job as a command judge advocate at Detroit Arsenal.

That same year, Elisabeth and two other actors received second place in a group acting competition at the Michigan Thespian Festival for a scene from “Crimes of the Heart.” Elisabeth portrayed Meg, a 27-year-old singer, sister and one-time mental health patient.

“I love acting so much,” said Elisabeth, agreeing that it’s fun but also a growing experience. “It’s opening my eyes to different perspectives. I’m opening my mind.” Being involved in all aspects of theater has led to her positive attitude. “It won’t be a show unless we have all the help we need. Everyone plays a part. We’re taught that you can’t have an ego because being an actor, you’re just one part of the whole play or musical. Everyone chips in.” 11. Elisabeth McCallum Polleys theatre performance (2018)

Maintaining a good attitude has not always been easy for Elisabeth because as a military child, she has endured multiple moves for her mother’s career and missed her mother during extended absences. She empathizes with other military children, especially those who don’t live near bases with other kids who understand their challenges and sacrifices.

“I learned Hawaiian history in seventh grade, not Michigan history, but I am tested on that now,” Elisabeth said, citing one small example of the trials military kids face. “My mom travels all the time. My mom went to Afghanistan. My friends do not know what it is like to have your mom fighting in a war. My mom has missed so much of my life. She has missed so much because she was deployed or is always [traveling for work]. Military kids do not get to choose this life.”

Still, she feels patriotic having a mother in uniform. “I feel that I am a part of this country’s success because my mom is fighting for our freedoms and our rights. Without people like her, this country would not be as great as it is. People have fought and died for this country. I am proud to say that I am an American and that my mom is a part of making this country the best in the world.”

Elisabeth is also happy to represent military children as a MCOY recipient. The process “helped me realize how the military has blessed me with many opportunities,” she said. “If it was not for the Army, I would not be who I am today. I really think I am stronger because of my life as a military child.”

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Benjamin Rawald can’t decide which is the greater benefit of receiving the 2019 Air Force Military Child of the Year® Award – the scholarship that will help him and his family pay for college or the attention he might garner for one of his favorite conservation concerns, saving monarch butterflies.

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Both are excellent perks, says Benjamin, 17, who felt “shock, disbelief and then relief” when he found out he would receive the prestigious award. “As the son of a single mother, I am very worried about how I will pay for my college education,” he said, noting that he would like to become a computer engineer. “I am absolutely relieved that the scholarship will help me financially, but I also hope the recognition will help my environmental projects.”

After reading a National Geographic article about the reasons monarch numbers are declining – climate change and vanishing milkweed, the only plant that caterpillars eat – Benjamin consulted a biology professor about how he could help. Benjamin decided to plant milkweed, but not just a few plants. Over three years, he and local youth he trained spread 15,000 milkweed seeds in two neighboring Texas counties, the one where he lives in Del Rio, Texas, and the other where he attends high school as a junior in Brackettville.

First, Benjamin tested for the right combination of ingredients that would germinate well. That was a stinky job because the seed balls include manure. It was also an expensive project; Benjamin raised funds and paid some costs personally. And it was time-consuming. The seeds had to be refrigerated for two months to ensure success. But it was all worth it to help the threatened species, he said. “We can’t control the weather, but we can help to preserve the migratory path of the monarch.”

Benjamin also persuaded several local farmers to grow an additional 13 acres of milkweed. While it’s too soon to say whether his efforts have helped increase the butterfly population, Benjamin followed-up to determine that hundreds of mature milkweed plants resulted.

Benjamin’s other environmental projects have included removing invasive fish from a local creek, establishing four plastic bag recycling areas in his town when there had been none, numerous cleanups, wetlands revitalization, starting toner cartridge recycling at Laughlin AFB and recycling over 10,000 cartridges in three years. “Unfortunately, recycling does not save our world, proactivity does,” Benjamin said, a statement he backs up with hard work because he believes in the “leave no trace” outdoors ethic.

Benjamin’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering the challenges and obstacles he has faced growing up as a military child, which he described in an essay, including 24 months of deployments by his father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel; his parents’ divorce; his mother’s cancer diagnosis; living far from extended family; and staying on and off with another military family during his mother’s treatment. He remembers the two years after the divorce as a time of “poverty, hunger and fear.” “We learned firsthand that military families take care of each other,” he said.

Joining the base Boy Scout troop in sixth grade at Laughlin AFB, where his mother works as a civilian Defense Department employee, helped him move beyond that difficult period, develop leadership and teamwork skills, and adopt values. The troop and the base youth center provided an education in the “school of life,” Benjamin said, where he learned to be his best self. He went on to become a mentor to younger scouts, an Eagle Scout and to earn the Venturing Summit Award in 2018. The Summit Award is Venturing’s highest honor given for mentoring and leadership. Benjamin received it for a 108-hour project teaching 43 school age kids cyber safety by running five lesson plans, games, videos and discussion activities.Ben Rawald 40

Scouting has remained a constant in his life since. Though it was hard adjusting when several of his troop friends moved away the same summer because their military families were reassigned, he made it a point to continue befriending military students, even knowing they would leave after two to three years too.

“Civilian kids may not understand that making real friends with lots of new people means the world becomes a smaller place because you know and care for people all over the world,” Benjamin said.

Acknowledging that it’s not always easy to make friends, Benjamin said, “Social contacts are far more difficult when you are different than the norm, but I have always appreciated my inner nerd.”

Many others appreciate Benjamin’s qualities as well. Danny Williams, 47th Operations Group director of academics and simulations at Laughlin, wrote a letter commending Benjamin’s kindness, intelligence and service. Williams is a retired Air Force pilot and instructor pilot supervisor who has raised five Eagle Scouts with his wife, and serves as Eagle advancement chairman for their district. He said Benjamin stands out as “the jewel in Scouting’s Crown of achievements.”


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When Air Force son Brandon Mammano encounters tough times, including the many challenges of moving eight times in his 18 years, three sources of strength see him through: God, his parents and music.

The 2019 Military Child of the Year® Innovation Award recipient has learned to successfully balance out hardships with good times and seeks to help other students do the same. Brandon received the Innovation Award, presented by global technology and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, for his student sponsor program at his previous high school designed to make life easier for new military youth arriving in the community.  Mammano 23

He knows how to help because he has needed assistance before, sometimes from above. “I can always call on Him when I need help or comfort in my life,” Brandon said.

He also relies on his parents’ “never-ending support”: “They are the most amazing parents anyone can ever ask for. They have always been there. They always push me to continue whenever I feel like I can’t do something, and I will always love them for that.”

Finally, Brandon’s love of music cheers him up or provides the sound track for life’s best moments. “Music is something that I can always have that makes me feel good,” he said. “When I listen to my music, memories of my life throughout all of my moves comes back to me and reminds me of all of the fun times I’ve had with all of my friends.”

Brandon said each place he has lived – while moving for father Air Force Col. John Mammano’s career – has helped him grow. His favorites have been Germany, New Mexico and Hawaii because they have allowed him to travel, desert sled and boogie board at the beach.

But not every experience has been as much fun. For example, in 2017, he was elected class president but did not get to serve his term because his family moved from New Mexico to Hawaii, where he is now a senior. Resilient in the face of adversity, Brandon quickly found new ways to get involved, which is what his Innovation Award is all about – alleviating arriving students’ stress, fear of the unknown and loneliness.

“They pick up their entire lives to start over again from scratch somewhere else,” Brandon said. “Military families do not choose where or when they will move,” and kids are left to wonder: “What will my life look like in the next year?”

Often, they must simultaneously contend with “a loved one being deployed somewhere else in the world and not knowing if their mom or dad are going to make it home,” he said. “The pain it takes to say goodbye to your own mom or dad is something that many civilian kids will never understand, but military children do it anyway because they know the importance of why they have to say that goodbye: So that their parents can go defend and continue to make our country strong.”

Brandon improved and expanded on a program the military uses to welcome service members to their new base. The service members’ letter includes a local point of contact to smooth their transition. Brandon worked with his father’s unit to add his own welcome letter to the materials sent to those newly assigned. In his letter, he encouraged them to contact him with questions.

Brandon would like to roll out the program throughout the entire Department of Defense. He helped over 100 new students at his school alone. He envisions that local schools would work with military base family support centers to include student-to-student letters in outgoing welcome packages.

He has experiencing welcoming new students as his former school’s first president of the Student 2 Student program, a Military Child Education Coalition initiative, that seeks to ease their transitions. Working through S2S and starting more chapters across the country could be another way to roll out his program.

Offering other military children advice, Brandon said: “Moving and being the new kid will always feel scary, but it will feel so much easier when you can start by being yourself. People will learn to love you for you. You just have to have open arms and be willing to try new things. You will have a happier time if you are open to … crawling out of your shell.” Mammano 27

He practices what he preaches, getting involved through volunteering, including at the Schofield Barracks USO and the Tripler Fisher House, where he helps with whatever is needed from cleaning to welcoming service members home from deployment, and setting up computer equipment to child care.

One of Brandon’s mentors, Sasha Mejia, a teacher at his old high school and student council advisor, said in a recommendation letter that his strong character and ability to make difficult tasks look easy made him the right S2S leader “to ensure no student ever felt alone.” Another letter writer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lee H. Harvis, also praised Brandon’s skill at getting to know struggling students and engaging shy students. “Brandon’s passion is helping others succeed and making a difference,” Harvis said.

Indeed, Brandon, a competitive swimmer who also plays golf, the ukulele and piano, says “I have always felt the importance of respecting and being kind to others.” “Sharing goodness has a multiplying and profound effect.”

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Ravin Woodard stood at the corner of the kitchen island and took a quiet moment to herself among the hustle and bustle surrounding her. Her smile never wavered as she looked around the newly-built, three-bedroom, two-bath house.

For Ravin, everything felt a bit unreal.


“It’s overwhelming. It’s like, it feels like it’s mine but at the same time, it doesn’t. I don’t know if that makes sense,” Ravin said, slightly shaking her head. “It’s just, it’s a lot.”

Overwhelming became the word of the day for Ravin and her husband, medically retired Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Woodard, as they toured their new home during a March 26 “Welcome to the Community” ceremony held by Operation Homefront as part of the Transitional Homes for Community Reintegration program.

“It’s really beautiful,” Joshua said about the Katy, Texas house built by Meritage Homes. “I didn’t expect this.”

Through the THCR program, Joshua, Ravin, and their two sons, Elijah, 2, and Samuel, 8 months, will live in the house rent-free for two to three years. The couple will work with financial counselors and caseworkers to build savings, reduce debt, and develop a strong transition plan.

Operation Homefront launched THCR in August 2018. Made possible by a generous investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation and support from The Home Depot Foundation and others, the program was designed as a gateway for stability to help veteran families remain strong, stable and secure as they transition from military service. The program will soon have eight properties in five states.

Operation Homefront Chief Operating Officer Brig. Gen. (ret.) Robert Thomas welcomed the Woodard family to the neighborhood. Bob, family and plaque

“You can find the perfect school…find a wonderful job opportunity, but until you have safe, secure housing, none of those dreams can come true,” Bob said as he addressed those who gathered for the event. “Our veterans and their families often feel overwhelmed as they transition out of the military and our program will help ensure their success.”

Joshua said the years he will live in the home align perfectly with his schooling at Houston Community College to become a dental hygienist. Ravin hopes to become a middle school math teacher and is currently taking classes toward an associate degree. Being accepted into the program means they can also strengthen their family bonds, Ravin said.

“It definitely gives us more time to focus, not just on our financial obstacles, (but) on our boys and watching them grow instead of being stressed all the time.”

Joshua had hoped to make the Coast Guard his career after joining in 2011. He had to change his plans after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Following a 2014 surgery, a doctor recommended he see a cardiologist who determined Joshua’s heart was not functioning correctly. The Coast Guard assigned him to light duty and began the medical board process. He medically retired in January.

The couple and their two children were living in a small apartment. The worry about bills became a constant companion, especially after Joshua estimated that they would have about $3 left in their account each month. The fact that the program combines a stable home and provides financial education made it even more appealing, he said. He looks forward to learning how to budget better and to creating a strong foundation to buy their own home in the future.

That kind of support is imperative, said Rufus Guebara III, a veteran career advisor for the Texas Veterans Commission, who was in attendance at the ceremony. It was the first time he had heard about the THCR program.

“I love the whole idea,” he said. “We always look for service organizations that are not giving just a hand out but a hand up.”

Volunteers from Home Depot and HEB, as well as representatives from Meritage Homes, JPMorgan Chase, the Guill Family Foundation, and VFW Honor Guard Post 9182 also attended the event.

As the family walked through the house for the first time, Elijah pushed as many buttons as he could on the new washer and dryer and tried to use the pantry (with shelves completely stocked, courtesy of HEB) as a secret hideaway. And then he saw the backyard. Joshua Woodard and son Elijah

Elijah, always up for an adventure, heard a dog barking next door, grabbed his dad’s hand and tried to pull him toward the fence. “The backyard is what he was most excited about,” Joshua said. “That’s all he wants to do any time we talk about (our new home.) He finds a rock and he’s happy.”

Though both of their extended families live in Mississippi, they want to stay in the Houston area for the job opportunities and their children’s education. Over the last two years, they have become very involved in their church. Joshua has a brother and sister who live about 45 minutes away and the THCR home will make putting down roots in the community easier.

“It’s absolutely beautiful for sure, all the people who came out (today), it’s just amazing really,” Joshua said. “Most people won’t ever really know what this means to us, it’s beyond what we expected.”

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