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Archive for the ‘Service Members’ Category

Deidrick Caesar, who exited the Air Force in late 2017 after 15 years of service and five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, no longer worries about providing a home for his wife, 12-year-old daughter and new baby due this month.

Deidrick, his wife, Lissette, and daughter, Lianna, were one of the first families to move into a new home constructed under Operation Homefront’s Transitional Homes for Community Reintegration (THCR) program. The new program, made possible by the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, was designed as a gateway for stability so veteran families can remain strong, stable and secure after their military service.

During his Air Force career, Deidrick served as a medical technician. He enlisted in 2002, first deployed in 2005, and deployed for the last time in 2014. His experiences range from working in the intense, trying environment of the emergency room or intensive care unit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to being the noncommissioned officer in charge at the neonatal intensive care unit at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

As Deidrick prepared to leave the Air Force on short notice after narrowly missing promotion requirements to E-6, he and Lissette were concerned about transitioning, particularly affording housing after losing steady income. Due to his experience downrange, Deidrick receives compensation for a 50-percent Veterans Affairs disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But with a baby boy on the way, and Deidrick needing to finish his degree before changing careers, they weren’t sure how to find their way forward. Thanks to THCR, they now feel reassured they won’t lose their footing. “It’s kind of a big deal … that a paycheck won’t be coming in,” he said. “It’s … a struggle just to come to terms with what am I going to do now. How are we going to survive?”

While living in the roughly 2,000-square-foot home in the Helotes area of San Antonio, technically rent-free, they will pay utilities and make an additional monthly payment. OH will refund them the total amount of the additional monthly payments when they graduate in two to three years from the program, which also provides financial counseling to assist families with saving, paying off debt and improving credit. The Caesars can use that refund for a down payment on a home or other needs.

The Caesars are grateful that Operation Homefront and the Clark Foundation are a major part of the solution that will lead to self-sufficiency. “This is probably the biggest blessing so far,” Deidrick said. “It’s a great feeling. That’s what everyone dreams of, being able to … buy a house … having a place we can call home.”

Deidrick acknowledges that working in trauma care took its toll over time. “Most of my deployments were rough,” Deidrick said. “I’ve seen all the soldiers and the coalition forces and even detainees come through with massive injuries.”

He also endured a health scare of his own that led to a major surgery in 2016. While imaging a blood clot found in 2015, doctors discovered a mass that was growing. Fearing it might be cancerous, they removed it, which required a 56-centimeter incision in his back and gluteus and 72 staples. The mass was benign but doctors continue to monitor Deidrick, who was a patient at the same hospital where he used to work. He could not walk for about six weeks and needed six months of physical therapy at Brook Army Medical Center’s Center for the Intrepid.

Deidrick was anxious while waiting to find out if the mass was cancerous because both of his parents died of cancer about 13 years apart in the 2000s.

Through it all, Deidrick has maintained a positive attitude and outlook. He sees a mental health care provider regularly for problems sleeping. He also stays active, working out, running 5K and 10K races, hiking and volunteering when he can.

“Always, I’m that type to look on the bright side. In my eyes, I always feel like I can overcome anything. … My wife, on the other hand, she might not have seen it that way. To be able to ease her mind, especially with a baby on the way, it makes me that much more happy that we have this opportunity to get help and to better ourselves for the future.”

Deidrick could work as an emergency medical technician, but after witnessing so much death and serious injury, he would like to shift focus and become an athletic trainer, working to prevent injuries or rehabilitate those who have been hurt. As a sports fan, particularly for teams from his hometown area of New Orleans, his dream job would be working for a professional sports team, but he is open to helping anywhere he can, including possibly supporting the military.

Using his post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, Deidrick is taking classes toward his associate degree at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. He would then like to transfer to University of Texas at San Antonio for kinesiology, the science of body movement.

Deidrick, who had hoped to stay in the Air Force until he was eligible to retire, said it “hurt at the time,” when he had to get out, making the adjustment to civilian life difficult. The Air Force was all he had known since he was 19. “It becomes you,” he said. Still, he believes “everything happens for a reason.” “Maybe … it’s time for me to do something different.”

Someday when the family is more settled, Lissette would like to finish her bachelor’s degree, started at University of Miami, where she also worked as a pharmacy technician. She now works as a business analyst for a health care company.

Lissette heard about THCR on the local evening news on channel 4, NBC affiliate WOAI. Deidrick said they hardly ever watch the news, and it was a “stroke of a good luck” that Lissette happened to be home and tuned in at that time. Ordinarily, she would have accompanied Deidrick to the gym at that time of day, he said. When Deidrick returned home, she told him about the program, and they felt it was meant to be. They decided to “go for it.”

The Caesars feel fortunate to be moving into a home that is larger than their apartment, with more space to spread out, which will make everyone more comfortable once the baby arrives.

Operation Homefront “definitely helps … open doors and gives families an opportunity to get on their feet … to set them up for success after the military,” Deidrick said. People may think they don’t have anywhere to turn, “but with organizations like Operation Homefront, you always have help … to stop you from falling too far to where you feel like you’re hopeless.”

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

 

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After getting a much-needed boost from Operation Homefront, Tamarra now studies social work and has a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She’s already been accepted into two schools to work on her master’s degree.

To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs. Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019.  You can catch up here with Day 1 and Day 2.

U.S. Army Sergeant Tamarra Stewart joined the Army in October 2008 because she wanted to serve her country. Over the course of her nine years of service, she rose to the rank of sergeant and served as a paralegal specialist. Her work ranged from criminal law, administrative law and legal assistance for other servicemen and women.

Tamarra deployed to Afghanistan for one year from 2009 to 2010. In May 2018, she medically retired with an honorable discharge. She struggles with some of the unseen wounds of war – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, bilateral shoulder impingement syndrome, and a lower back strain.

As many veterans know, the road to transition can be unexpectedly rough. Tamarra’s journey out of the military unfortunately included a separation from her husband, making her a single mother with two girls to care for on a limited income.

As a single mother, Tamarra’s injuries have not only impacted her life, but also the lives of her daughters. As her options for support were diminishing fast, she had a lucky turn of events. She discovered Operation Homefront’s rent-free transitional housing apartments, decided to apply and was accepted into the program.

Operation Homefront’s Transitional Housing Program allows service members, like Tamarra,to live rent free while they go through the transition process. Upon placement, Operation Homefront onsite caseworkers set up a mandatory schedule that these service members, veterans and their families must follow. They are required to attend support groups, workshops, benefits briefings, and resume writing classes, as determined by their counselor. They also undergo one-on-one financial counseling to reduce debt and build savings. Financial counselors also meet with each military family every 30 days to review their financial situation, determine where they are in the transition process, review their attendance in the required workshops and classes, and determine their ability to live on their own. Once they have become self-sufficient, OH will help them find suitable housing in the area they intend to live on a permanent basis. Upon completion of the program, veterans and their families should have VA benefits in place, debt significantly reduced and emergency savings in place.

Tamarra and her daughters have been living at Operation Homefront’s Transitional Housing Village program in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They have thrived ever since moving in and she has saved over $11,000. While living at the Village in Gaithersburg, she applied for a home through Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront (HOTH) program. She was blessed to hear that she was accepted into the program and is thankful for the opportunity she has before her – a chance to have a home of her own.

Thanks to Operation Homefront and JPMorgan Chase, Tamarra will soon move into a mortgage-free home in Belcamp, Maryland. She was accepted into the HOTH program so that she can continue to attend school at Montgomery County College, save money monthly, and live her life with her daughters near family and friends. The HOTH program offers military families like Tamarra the foundation for long-term stability and resiliency in order to enjoy the American dream of home ownership.

Tamarra had always wanted to go back to school, but the stress surrounding her separation and lack of income left her struggling with her classes. After getting a much-needed boost from Operation Homefront, she has a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She’s studying social work and has already been accepted into two schools to work on her master’s degree. She said that she doesn’t quite know what specifically she wants to do in the social work field yet, but more than anything she just wants to help people as much as she can because helping people makes her happy.
There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

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To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs.  Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019.

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Willie Simpson, Army Reserves Sergeant, has lived his life serving his country.  His story reflects what we see in so many who see their purpose in service to country.

Willie’s service spans 4 decades, having first joined the Marine Corps in 1979. Tragically, his time with the Marines when Willie was shot and injured while serving as a military policeman. After his recovery, Willie was unable to return to his duties as a military policeman. But that did not stop Willie’s quest to serve.

He approached the Army, and though the Army determined that Willie was not well enough to be in infantry, he was able to cross-train into the supply career field.

But the pain and impact of his injuries lingered, and after a time, Willie was processed out of the military. Undeterred, Willie enjoyed serving his country and working in government jobs that supported the military, and at one point, was working four jobs. All of this took time from his family and was extremely stressful on Willie. But he never lost sight of his desire to serve.

After he was completely recovered from his injuries, Willie reenlisted in the military. In 2008, while getting ready to deploy, Willie received more life altering news: a medical exam discovered an atrioventricular (AV) block. The surgeon general determined that Willie could should not even attempt to do the physical training (PT) test, let alone anything more strenuous, and that, to survive, he needed to lessen the stress in his life. Willie’s mission to serve our country seemed more in jeopardy than ever.

But by 2009, Willie felt better, so he took a PT test and scored the minimum score to get into combat medic training. At 52, Willie was the oldest in his class. “It was a rough course,” said Willie. “I had a cold and back issues, then I started having chest pains. I got sicker and sicker and weaker.” The school sent Willie home to get better, but he never returned.

“I never went back to the combat medic school,” said Willie. Willie’s health continued to decline and he found himself stuck in Georgia having to use crutches or a wheelchair to get around. He suffered from stress, post-traumatic stress, and sleep apnea. Then his wife got sick and was diagnosed with pre-dementia.

Because Willie had transferred to several different guard units and service branches during his 31 years of service, some of his paperwork got lost—including paperwork documenting his injuries. For eight months, Willie did not receive a paycheck. Then he would be paid for a period of time. Then he went into another no pay-status. During this time Willie’s car was repossessed.

Willie has been trying to medically process out of the military since 2010. In 2015, he received a medical board evaluation, but now he must wait for the Veterans Affairs to evaluate his case and begin his disability pay. He has been living off his savings, his wife’s disability pay, and using his 401K plan. When his landlord threatened to evict him, Willie reached out to Operation Homefront’s Critical Financial Assistance program for help. Operation Homefront paid Willie’s rent and utility bills.

Willie has a special message for Operation Homefront’s donors. “This was stressing me out. I am so thankful to OH. I had no one to turn to. My landlord was pushing me, but I can’t move because of my credit scores. I really needed Operation Homefront, and I have seen others that OH has helped.”

“Organizations like Operation Homefront really help … soldiers,” said Willie.

There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

 

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We had the chance this past summer to ask military veterans from many eras about their thoughts on service to country: why they chose to serve, what they remember the most about their time in service, and what they think Americans should know about military families and how we can join to support them.  It is our honor to share with you their thoughts as we kick off a celebration of veterans leading up to Veterans Day 2018.

 

On why they chose to serve…

“9/11 was one of the reasons, the other was because other members of my family served and it’s something that everyone should do, in my opinion.” –Tim, U.S. Army veteran, 6 years of service.

“I wanted to serve my country and be a part of something bigger then myself.” –Allen, U.S. Navy, 6 years of service.

“I was a country boy raised in northern La. I saw the Marines as a way to see the world!!!”-Charles, U.S.M.C., 8 years of service.

“Drafted in 1966.”-Hector, U.S. Army, 26 years of service.

On what they remember most about their service…

“The fact that our military is so powerful and great, and it is an all-volunteer military. I am very proud to have served besides such great Americans and people.”-Glen, U.S. Army, 34 years of service.

“The comradery, the selfless service.”-Justin, U.S. Army, 4 years of service.

“Evacuating refugees from Vietnam; removing people from a war-torn country.”-Carl, U.S.M.C., 5 years of service.

“Pulling back into (port) after being deployed to the Persian Gulf for almost a year and seeing thousands of people waiting on the piers for several returning ships. Just a great feeling to have that support.” –Chris, U.S. Navy, 10 years of service.

“Being part of a community that helps one another and sees only Red White and Blue.  While on a training mission in Kaiserslautern, Germany, several of my team members and I went on liberty.  We were from every ethnic background and upbringing that you can imagine.  As we walked the streets of that German town, it was very apparent that we were all the same, American!” –Jason, U.S. Navy, 6 years of service.

“When my Dad said, ‘PROUD OF YOU SON!!!!’”-Jim, U.S. Army, 2 years of service.

On what we can do TOGETHER to support military families…

“Life of a military family? It isn’t for everyone. Actually, not for most. It’s hard. Being away and all. Families that have been in for a long time and succeed, need to work with the ones who have been in a short time. Embrace them, help them.” –Ryan, U.S. Navy, 5 years of service.

“I believe the best thing they can so to show support to military families is just be a neighbor. What I mean by that is just be neighborly in any way you can. If it’s just a single older man or woman help them in the smallest ways such as take their trash out or help them fix something without asking for anything in return. Pay it forward as such.” –Nick, U.S.M.C., 6 years of service.

‘Knowing that there are a lot of birthdays, anniversaries, parties, Christmases and other holidays missed, and the little things that most civilians forget about and may not seem all to important are the most important things to a veteran.” –Dustin, U.S. Army, 12 years of service.

“Thank them and make sure that they and their family’s needs are met after their service ends.” –Hector, U.S. Army, 26 years of service.

“Best thing to do is something as small as a simple thanks.” –Christopher, U.S.A.F., 3 years of service.

 

Just as these veterans raised their hand to swear an oath to serve their country, you, too, can join in committing to support them through Operation Homefront’s #RaiseYourHand campaign. Learn more at http://www.operationhomefront.org/RaiseYourHand

 

 

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As about 3.6 million high school students graduate this year, we checked in with one of our Military Child of the Year® mothers about her emptying “nest,” and her youngest daughter’s college plans.

Moira Jablon-Bernstein, mother of 2017 MCOY Innovation Award recipient Sophie Bernstein, says she and her husband, Navy Reserve Capt. Brad Bernstein, played a role in raising three high-achieving children, but in the end, they are responsible for their own success.

Sophie, a graduating senior in St. Louis, applied to several top schools and decided to attend University of Missouri-Kansas City this fall. Under its B.A./M.D. program, she will graduate in six years with both a bachelor’s and a doctor of medicine degree. Sophie received the 2017 Military Child of the Year® Innovation Award, which is presented by Booz Allen Hamilton, for starting Grow Healthy, an organization that has planted more than two dozen gardens at preschools and daycare centers in St. Louis. These gardens help address issues like hunger, childhood obesity and the shortage of nutritious, fresh produce available in low-income neighborhoods.

After receiving the honor, which includes a $10,000 scholarship, Sophie continued working with Booz Allen Hamilton interns to re-engineer the Grow Healthy website, www.growhealthy.co where volunteers can sign up to help maintain gardens or apply to host one. “It was really neat what they did” together, Moira said. “I think it was really mutually beneficial.”

Sophie received the 2017 Military Child of the Year® Innovation Award, which is presented by Booz Allen Hamilton, for starting Grow Healthy, an organization that has planted more than two dozen gardens at preschools and daycare centers in St. Louis

Sophie is looking forward to seeing the project grow this summer, and then passing it on as she goes on to college.

Sophie’s older sister, Simone, is in the Navy and in her third year of medical school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., through the Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program. She will continue serving in the Navy after graduating. Sophie’s older brother, Jake, works for Google in Japan.

Moira used to work as a career counselor, and is now a part-time fitness instructor, teaching about 20 classes a week at community centers, corporations and universities. She recommends that parents who want to help their children do well in school and go to college must identify their kids’ strengths, and then help them achieve within their gifts, whether it’s in theater, compassion for helping others, science and math or other subjects. In their case, that meant not having computer games in the house, going to the library regularly, and limiting television. “We were just really focused on what we value, and what’s important to our family,” she said.

While the Bernsteins made academic education a priority, they also emphasized learning about the military and other types of service. “My husband’s philosophy has always been we give back to our community and to our nation,” Moira said. “For Sophie, that was the inspiration for the gardens.”

When Sophie received the MCOY award, “it was incredible,” Moira said. “It was wonderful on so many levels.” Moira appreciated that Sophie was honored for her work on the gardens project, and gained the opportunity to expand the initiative.

When traveling, the Bernstein family would make a point to visit military bases because they felt it was important for the kids to be around service members. “We made an effort to make the kids realize this is something their dad has taken on,” Moira said. “We tried to visit and expose our kids to as much military history as we can,” such as military museums so they understood and appreciated the U.S. armed services’ contributions.

“All three of my kids are really proud of their dad and to know that he’s giving back,” Moira said. “I just think there’s no greater gift in life.”

Moira Jablon-Bernstein(left), mother of 2017 MCOY Innovation Award recipient Sophie Bernstein (middle) visiting Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, on Capitol Hill.


Learn more about Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year Award program. #MCOY2018

Operation Homefront has joined with Procter and Gamble to promote the “Start Strong, Stay Strong” campaign, offering military moms a network of support – online and in commissaries and exchanges around the world – so they may connect with their communities, explore local events and discover motivational stories.  Whether they are welcoming a new child into the home, managing day-to-day household needs through relocations, adjusting to family life with a wounded veteran, or settling into new schools and communities, P&G and Operation Homefront are here to help military moms start strong and stay strong throughout their service to our country.  Moms can view a special video message from Melissa Stockwell about the campaign. Learn more at StartStrongPG.com.

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When parents doing the best they can to raise their kids need advice, they may consult friends and family, books and blogs, pediatricians and podcasts. The quality of the advice depends on the provider. Authors and doctors may offer professional credentials or even scientific evidence to support their guidance, with or without firsthand knowledge. Siblings and coworkers may base their suggestions on little more than good intentions.

That’s why some of the best advice may come from experienced mothers who are bringing up high achievers, such as the Military Child of the Year® recipients. Raising military children involves some unique challenges, including frequently changing schools, doctors and communities.

Jessica McGrath, whose older son, Alexander, was the 2017 Navy Military Child of the Year Award recipient, has learned a lot about parenting from her family’s experience moving more than seven times. She and her husband, Navy Capt. Richard McGrath, also have a son in seventh grade, Zachary. Alexander is finishing his first at Yale University, and has arranged a summer internship with a member of the British Parliament’s House of Commons.

Jessica recommends some ways parents can help their children succeed:

Be involved in their lives. “The biggest thing is to be an engaged parent,” Jessica said. “It kind of sounds clichéd, but it is very specific to the military child because … of moving so often …” It might be all right for parents who live in the same community for 10 years or more to go on “autopilot” once the child has established friends and activities, she said, but military families face a different situation. As much as possible, research schools, pediatricians and neighborhoods to find the best fit for your child.

For kids who do not handle moving as well, it is even more important to be tuned in, she said. Whenever possible, talk with them about what’s going on. Help them facilitate change if necessary because you may not have time for the issue to resolve itself. “You don’t have that gift of years of time in that one duty station.”

Act as your child’s advocate. “You need to be an advocate for your child, but that can be very positive. It doesn’t have to be an advocate in a complaining sense,” Jessica said.

For example, advocating for your child might mean being aware of and familiar with the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which requires states to ensure military kids have the same access to success as civilians, and are not penalized or delayed in achieving their educational goals. The compact addresses issues such as graduation requirements, records transfer and course placement.

It boils down to “making your child feel safe and happy and healthy in a new environment,” she said. Asking them “how can I help you learn to do it yourself?”

Tap into the local and military communities. “For a military child to be successful, it’s bloom where you’re planted,” Jessica said. They and their parents may not have had much, if any, control over where they moved, but they can make the most of what a community offers. “For this to really work though, you need support” from both the immediate family and the wider military family at the base or post. “You encourage them to get involved in this new community that you’re in,” whether that’s volunteering, joining teams or clubs, scouting, or whatever interests the child.

Getting involved helps the military children themselves, both in the moment and for future success, but also helps pave the way for other military children, she said. If they set a good example, it makes it that much easier for the community to accept the next military children who come along.

Jessica said another way to join the community is to take advantage of the wealth of information available among military families, and when appropriate, offer your own experiences. “Whatever it is you’re going through, someone has already done that.” In rural areas, Facebook groups of military families and spouses can be especially helpful, with members sometimes offering solutions within 20 minutes of posting. “I have always been amazed by the support,” she said.

Provide continuity. Continuing scouting, swimming, dance or other activities in each new community can help a child adapt, and gives a way to get to know kids who may become friends. An “anchor place,” somewhere you can return periodically, also helps. For the McGraths, it has been a family cabin in Maine. It could be a grandparent’s home, a friend’s place or just a favorite town.

Model how to take the initiative. “Lead by example,” she said. “We see a problem and you just fix it.” If someone needs assistance, your attitude should be “I don’t even know you, but let me drop what I’m doing and help you because I was there” too at one time. For example, Jessica and another spouse stepped in to take over the ombudsman’s responsibilities when that person became ill and had to bow out. The ombudsman is the liaison between the squadron and the ship’s command.

Teach that actions have consequences, and you control your actions. Whether it’s their own actions or someone else’s, decisions have a larger effect. “That’s, I think, the ultimate learning experience,” Jessica said. “You’re empowering them.” If a student at school got in trouble, talk about factors that may have contributed. Discuss empathy. If a friend got into college, discuss the many steps that led to that good news.

Develop a positive relationship with your kids. Jessica said if she has a parenting super power, it’s probably investing the time required for closeness and easy rapport with her sons. “They feel comfortable taking to me, and telling me their problems but also their successes, and us working together as a team.”

Realize that no two children are the same. You can strengthen a child’s attributes, and they each have their own individual qualities. Alex finds and pursues his own opportunities with tenacity. She doesn’t find them for him. But she did teach him social skills, and to always be polite, which helped him interact in ways that led to positive outcomes. “He has this inner drive that I didn’t give him,” she said. “My gift was maybe getting your foot in the door.”

Focus on the positive. Jessica acknowledges that the moving process itself isn’t always fun, but says the pros can outweigh the cons. “It builds your character, it builds resiliency. You become a better person, and basically, that sets you up to be a very successful adult.”

Meeting various challenges gives you strength to draw upon, teaches you what works and what doesn’t, and even gives you good conversation starters, she said. “Non-military kids don’t always get that opportunity, which I actually think is a blessing to learn and grow.”

Take care of yourself. Explore classes at local community colleges. Jessica, who graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in management and retail buying, has worked in her field, but also reinvented herself numerous times. She worked for a company that sells mutual funds and insurance, for an attorney and for the Navy Exchange. She volunteered in advocacy for military families, helping with family readiness groups and CORE, or Continuum of Resource Education, which provides seminars and volunteers dedicated to enriching Navy spouses and families. Later, Jessica discovered a love for art and took classes in metalsmithing and photography. She is now a designer at the Baltimore Jewelry Center.

Richard McGrath, a former Navy pilot, is a professor of operations research at the Naval Academy.

Aside from being personally proud to see Alexander’s hard work pay off when he received the MCOY award, Jessica said it was even more special and meaningful knowing that he represents many other military children, “validating their breadth of experience, the resiliency of the military child.” Alex is friends with another 2017 MCOY award recipient, Henderson Heussner, who also attends Yale. Jessica said she’s glad the two of them share a common bond and background from their military upbringing.

“Just to see what a military child can accomplish is such an amazing, rewarding thing,” she said. “I love Operation Homefront and everything that they do.”

Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making the Military Child of the Year Award program possible. We’re also grateful to the following additional sponsors: Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, MidAtlantic Broadband, La Quinta Inn & Suites, Veterans United Home Loans, Under Armour, Tutor.com and Military Times.

 

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Christopher Rodriguez was our Military Child of the Year for the U.S. Marine Corps. Now a Marine himself, we had the chance to touch base with him to talk about his journey since we last saw him. (Read Christopher’s profile from 2015).

In the 2½ years since Christopher Rodriguez received Operation Homefront’s Marine Corps Military Child of the Year award, he has completed half his classes toward a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and become a private first class in the Marine Reserve.

While he has one graduation ahead of him — Christopher expects to finish his University of Nevada, Las Vegas degree in 2020 — he completed a big milestone Oct. 6, graduating from basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and Camp Pendleton, California.

The grueling 13-week, three-phase program was tough, but worth it, Christopher said. “Earning the title of Marine, receiving the eagle, globe and anchor [emblem] at the top of the Reaper was a very rewarding and proud moment for myself,” he said, referring to the last obstacle at Camp Pendleton, California, a mountain that recruits must scale before becoming Marines. “Being a Marine was something I’ve always wanted to do.”

The last phase of the training, known as The Crucible, culminates at the Reaper, and is physically and mentally challenging, “pushing your limits that you wouldn’t have expected you could do in the very beginning of it,” Christopher said. Though he had to miss a semester for boot camp, he learned a lot of valuable lessons there, such as how best to achieve goals while working with other people’s flaws and strengths. “Being able to do that kind of gave me some more confidence,” he said.

Family support was key to finishing each day with a positive mindset, Christopher said. “The main motivation for me, getting through the whole process was definitely my family, said Christopher, adding that letters from his parents, grandparents and other family members comforted him.

Another incentive that drove him to finish: his appetite. “When I graduated, I wanted to eat real food. I missed a lot of the home cooking. The first thing I ate, we went to a Mexican restaurant, and I just ordered the fattest burrito that was on the menu.”

When Christopher graduated from Lejeune High School, North Carolina, he wasn’t sure he wanted to join the Marines right out of high school, so he took time to think about it while attending college. “Now I’m ready for it,” he said. “I was all for it.”

One factor that helped him make up his mind was spending time with family. He, his parents and two younger siblings moved to Las Vegas to be closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Chris’ stepfather, retired Gunnery Sgt. Jermaine Smith, is now a Marine JROTC instructor at a local high school. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” said Christopher’s mom, Griscelda Smith, who teaches toddlers at a child care center. Christopher’s 17-year-old sister, Jazzlyn, and 15-year-old brother, Kilyn, are in the Navy JROTC program at a different high school.

It was important to Chris to be involved in family members’ lives. Having done that, he felt content with his decision to join the Marine Corps, knowing, “If I do deploy, I got to spend my time with family.”

After two more months of training at Camp Pendleton, Chris will drill as a reservist on weekends and up to two weeks a month at the Armed Forces Reserve Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He plans to go through Officer Candidates School to become a commissioned Marine Corps officer, graduating as a second lieutenant.

“Our goal as a parent, he needs to finish school,” his mom said.

Chris said later in life, he might like to go back to school for environmental science, studying renewable and reusable energy. “I find that very interesting,” he said of the field, in which some of his family members work. “A cleaner environment for everyone to live in, to me is very important,” Chris said.

One of Christopher’s favorite memories from the Washington, D.C., trip for the Military Child of the Year gala was getting to know the other 2015 recipients, a memory later marred by the death of National Guard recipient Zachary Parsons, who was killed in a February 2016 car accident. “It was a tragic moment,” Christopher said. “It hit me hard. We all got close. He was a great guy.”

Seeing the Washington sights and memorials was a “big wow moment,” that gave him appreciation for our country’s history, and that he will always cherish, Christopher said.

Another highlight: Meeting the high-ranking officers who attended the MCOY gala and had a good influence on him, especially now-retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Stay motivated, whatever you’re doing with your life,” Christopher advised future MCOY recipients. “Keep moving forward. Keep providing for your community.” He said he knows philanthropic people, such as MCOY recipients, like feeling proud for giving back and helping others, so he encouraged them to be “that leader, that role model in your family and for your friends, for your school.”

“Stay being yourself,” he advised. “Be humble.”

Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making the Military Child of the Year Award program possible. We’re also grateful to the following additional sponsors: Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, MidAtlantic Broadband, La Quinta Inn & Suites, Veterans United Home Loans, Under Armour, Tutor.com and Military Times.

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