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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.

 

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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A shining example of Operation Homefront’s core values, Yvette performs with excellence and gratitude. She’s an inspiration to Operation Homefront’s Region 4 staff and volunteers, as well as to her family who serve alongside her.

It is National Yvette Peterson has been a superb volunteer with Operation Homefront for five years. The decision to volunteer came after she and her husband, a medically retired soldier, were awarded a mortgage-free home in 2013, through Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront program.

“We decided that we needed to help other military families,” Peterson said. “Going through Operation Homefront, we would be able to be a part of something on greater scales than we could ever do on our own.”

Yvette has made a significant impact since joining the Operation Homefront volunteer force. She planned, organized, and executed the annual Back-to-School Brigade event at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2019, distributing 1,000 backpacks full of school supplies to military children. Yvette received the shipment of backpacks, collected donated school supplies from 10 Dollar Tree stores, and set up the Fort Bragg event.

Yvette also successfully distributed 22 pallets of Procter and Gamble products to military families in Fayetteville, NC, despite multiple logistical hurdles. Her “can do” attitude resulted in a seamless Holiday Meals for Military in Fayetteville that included visits with Santa, toy distribution, and holiday crafts for 265 families.

In order to serve as many military families as possible, Yvette has developed strong relationships with Dollar Tree and Walmart store managers and their staff. She says she appreciates the opportunity to help families who are in stressful positions she can relate to.

“It’s awesome to be able to be a part of an organization that strives to help military families,” she said. “As the wife of a medically retired Army veteran, I know all too well that it can be a struggle both financially and emotionally.”

A shining example of Operation Homefront’s core values, Yvette performs with excellence and gratitude. She’s an inspiration to Operation Homefront’s Region 4 staff and volunteers, as well as to her family who serve alongside her.

Operation Homefront wishes to thank our volunteers all they do for us. Volunteers help bring both the “what we do” and “why we do it” aspects of our mission to life. Simply put, you help build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities – OUR communities – they have worked so hard to protect. 

Thank you for all you have done, continue to do, and will do for our service members and the families that serve alongside them. They are counting on us and we are proud to say WE DELIVER!

Want to know more about how you can get involved with Operation Homefront? Visit our Get involved page here www.operationhomefront.org/getinvolved

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We are pleased to share with you today some words from our President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr., Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.) on this year’s Military Child of the Year Awards recipients and why it so important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our military children and why we want to make this moment as special as possible for our 2020 recipients at this challenging time:

Although we, as a nation, are still struggling with the unprecedented challenges brought on by a global pandemic, it is important for all to look for bright spots to show the promise of a brighter future. At Operation Homefront, I don’t need to look any farther than this year’s honorees for our Military Child of the Year (MCOY) Awards.

These prestigious awards are designed to recognize the amazing achievements of seven of our nation’s military teenagers who have excelled at home, in school, and in their communities through their leadership, volunteerism, scholarship, and extracurricular involvement, all while working with parental deployments, relocations, and the many other challenges that often characterize military family life.

Normally, we would have had the opportunity to recognize our award winners at our “big event” – our annual gala – held every April, in Arlington, Virginia. However, because of COVID-19, and the need to do our part to ensure the safety of all our guests and to comply with the federal and state public health guidelines, I canceled this year’s celebration.

That said, I knew we couldn’t sit idly by and let an opportunity to showcase some exceptional young people pass so I am proud to say that the show will go on with our virtual celebration of these extraordinary representatives of the millions of military kids who serve our great nation alongside their parents.

All at Operation Homefront firmly believe taking time to celebrate our MCOY winners – no matter the venue or platform – is a “must do” type event. Having grown up in a military family, and after serving for over 27 years in the Air Force, I understand the challenges that our military families experience. Faced with the uncertainty of frequent short- or no-notice moves and deployments, it can be difficult for military kids to focus in school, to feel connected to their community, and to develop close friendships. That is why I believe it so important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our military children and why Operation Homefront wants to make this moment as special as possible for our recipients.

President and CEO, John I. Pray, at our MCOY gala in 2019. Normally, we would have had the opportunity to recognize our award winners at our “big event” – our annual gala – held every April, in Arlington, Virginia. However, because of COVID-19, and the need to do our part to ensure the safety of all our guests and to comply with the federal and state public health guidelines, we canceled this year’s in-person celebration. However, we believe taking time to celebrate our MCOY winners – no matter the venue or platform – is a “must do” type event.

The accomplishments of our 2020 group, like all our previous winners, is in a word – impressive. Our judges selected the seven honorees from a very competitive field of more than 400 nominees. The seven represent each branch of service and our Innovation Award recipient. I like to refer to them as the “Magnificent Seven.”

Our 2020 MCOY winners are:

Kainath Kamil – Innovation Award
Fionnuala “Finn” Mahoney – Army
Niklas Cooper – Marine Corps
Miryam Smith — Navy
Samantha Grab — Air Force
Pierce Corson — Coast Guard
Kristina Lee — National Guard

 

Kainath, Finn, Niklas, Miryam, Samantha, Pierce, and Kristina all exemplify the spirit of selfless service that that not only improves lives in their communities but also offers hope for our future. They have logged over 2,080 volunteer hours in the past 12 months. Five of them are National Honor Society members, all of them take AP or dual college credit classes in school. Four are competitive athletes (swimming, volleyball, cross country, cheer) and five speak at least one language other than English.

They are caregivers to family members and leaders in sports and academia. They are ambassadors for mental health awareness, global issues, and the need for greater understanding of differences. They have used science and innovation to find solutions to world problems. Finn is even working with a team at the National Institutes of Health that is searching for a solution to COVID-19.

As we soak in all their achievements, there is little doubt why we must celebrate this very special and deserving group of military teens who represent that brighter future I noted earlier. Congratulations to all of you and to your families.

I would also like to recognize and extend a heartfelt thanks to our partners and supporters who have made our MCOY program possible:

• Our 2020 presenting sponsor, United Technologies (Pratt & Whitney); our Innovation Award sponsor, Booz Allen Hamilton; and our other event sponsors, Procter & Gamble, LaQuinta by Wyndham Hotels, PNC Bank, Veterans United Home Loans, Carnival Cruise Line, and Military Times

• Our MCOY judges, board members, OH staff and volunteers, and our two wonderful leaders the Military Child of the Year Award program, Jenny Valderas and Emily Miller.

The celebration continues as more stories and videos are coming – including congratulatory videos from John Heald of Carnival Cruise Line, and the country music sensation Runaway June, who were scheduled to perform. Also, while you may not meet our great MCOY recipients in person, you will get to hear the Magnificent Seven in their own words. So please stay tuned.

Please remember to share your congratulations and special messages with this year’s recipients at http://www.operationhomefront.org/mcoymessages.

View President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr., Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)’s message for the kick-off of virtual Military Child of the Year gala:

 

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