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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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15-year-old Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® Award recipient Joshua Frawley likes to challenge himself, especially when doing so means others will benefit.

Joshua has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. People with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions or need strict routines to thrive. All challenges that could have been overwhelming for Joshua due to the frequent deployments and moves that come with life as a military family. But despite these challenges, Joshua regularly pushes himself out of his comfort zone. Never more so than when his father and mother both needed him to be strong.

His father Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Frawley, deployed multiple times while serving in the Marine Corps, and was then medically retired as 100% disabled veteran. Throughout the time, Joshua’s Mom was the source of strength for the family especially Joshua. Two years ago, Joshua’s mom found out she had a sarcoma in her ankle, which led to her leg being amputated three weeks later. The tables turned and the family, once looked over by a strong mom, had to step up and help her in her time of need. Once again, Joshua stepped outside his comfort zone, in a big way.

“My Mom is my biggest supporter. She was there for my Dad when he was injured and gave up her job teaching college to be his caregiver. She also made sure I got the support and help I needed at school to help me learn how to redirect, avoid meltdowns, and handle the issues that kids with Autism face. She never set limits on me and always signed me up for activities that most kids do. It was not always easy, but I can say I am glad she did. She wanted me to have as “normal” of a childhood as possible and to not let my Autism define me. I played baseball, soccer, basketball, and was in scouts,” said Joshua.

“Our family is stronger than ever and I think we appreciate life more. My mom has been so strong and faced her cancer and treatments head on. She doesn’t let being an amputee slow her down. In a way, all of the stuff my family has been through (as a military family) has helped prepare us for my Mom’s cancer battle. Although she is still fighting her sarcoma, she has already shown me that she is way stronger than cancer!” said Joshua.

His younger sister, Amber, who is 12, looks up to Joshua, especially when their parents are out of town for their mother’s cancer treatments and he helps his grandmother keep things running smoothly.

But his sister isn’t the only one who sees him as a role model. An excellent student, Joshua serves as a tutor to students who need help with math, science, and other disciplines. For over four years, Josh has been a SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) ambassador. SAVE student ambassadors provide positive peer influences and facilitate reporting bullying as a form of violence prevention, among other service projects. One unique factor Joshua brings to SAVE is that he can spread autism awareness, explaining to other students how children with autism might act differently in certain social situations. In this way, Joshua opens a window into the world of autism and helps build understanding and support for kids like himself.

This year, Joshua was nominated as an officer of his Students Against Violence Everywhere Program and has been serving as the treasurer. He will represent his program at a statewide conference to further the mission of SAVE in North Carolina Public Schools.

Joshua’s dream is to become an engineer “I am very proud of my Dad. His job was to disarm IEDs. He is so brave. I love electronics and robotics like my Dad and hope to someday find a way to contribute and give back to our country like he did,” said Joshua.

We have no doubt, Joshua, that the future has good things in store for you and your family.

See highlights from Joshua’s long list of achievements:

Meet all seven Military Child of the Year® Award recipients and be sure to join us on Facebook on Thursday, April 19 at 7 pm EST for a live feed of the very special awards gala honoring our outstanding Military Child of the Year recipients. Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making it 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, and Military Times. #MCOY2018

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Isabelle Richards knows what it means to be a part of a military family. Not only is she the daughter of Senior Chief Petty Officer James Richards and Lorraine Richards, she has five older brothers, four of whom have served on active duty.

Isabelle has embraced the opportunities and challenges of military life. “Military kids get a great gift when we are born into this life. My Dad and Mom always tell us we are giving you a gift of Grit,” she said. It is this grit and dedication that compelled us to select 13-year-old Isabelle as the 2018 Navy Military Child of the Year® Award recipient.

Having a front seat to the many ways that our young men and women serve, and the high costs that can be borne by them, Isabelle wanted to ensure that they never felt forgotten. She created a local call to action group/nonprofit called Cards and Cupcakes Supporting Our Wounded Warriors. Expanding the program from Southern California to the entire West Coast and Midwest, Isabelle’s organization sends homemade greeting cards and cupcakes to a segment of veterans she calls “healing heroes.” Students in schools across the country participate in her growing enterprise.

The countless hours she pours into Cards and Cupcakes pales in comparison to the contributions of wounded veterans, according to Isabelle, who lives by her own words. “When I am tired or feeling lazy, I remember what they sacrificed, and they never complain,” she said.

Isabelle carries her message of grit and determination to others, founding and running the Dove Self-Esteem project at her school. This year, she was chosen to be a peer mentor, a highly sought position, appointed by a teacher. Peer mentors help other students deal with crisis situations and encourages them to seek assistance. Isabelle did all of this while maintaining a 4.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.

 

In addition to her passions, Isabelle spends double-digit hours every week in the dance studio. She aspires to be a professional ballerina but also use her passion for dance to help others learn to express themselves unconventionally.

Isabelle feels blessed to be a part of a military family. “I am the only girl and I have a Daddy and 4 older brothers who serve and protect our country, SO lucky is a huge way I feel. I am also extremely proud of my Daddy and brothers. I am the fan club president for all of them. We learned when we were young the importance of serving others. (Every day) and a lot of special moments are sacrificed by all of them and I am happy to shout it from our mountain that my Daddy and brothers are all proud military members.”

Her advice to other military kids: Embrace this great life we have. Don’t dwell on the negative, find the positive. Be the example to other military kids and help them learn about this crazy roller coaster life, remember how awesome it feels on the top of the ride when you have the wind blowing in your hair and share that feeling every day!

Isabelle is the daughter of Senior Chief Petty Officer James Richards and Lorraine Richards. Her youngest brother, James Nathaniel “Nate” Richards, won the 2012 Navy Military Child of the Year® Award.

See highlights from Isabelle’s long list of achievements:

Meet all of our seven Military Child of the Year® recipients and be sure to join us on Facebook on Thursday, April 19 at 7 pm EST for a live feed of the very special awards gala honoring our outstanding Military Child of the Year recipients. Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making it 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, and Military Times. #MCOY2018

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When one meets Roark Corson, our 2018 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year®, there is no doubt that the future is in good hands.

“The movers and shakers of the world are not afraid to do things outside of their comfort zones or afraid to go to previously uncharted territory. The people who do great things for their communities and other people are courageous and willing to risk their safety and comfort for others. My dad exemplified that in his Coast Guard career, whether it was literally going into unfamiliar waters in a 378-foot cutter or working to support his crew members in new and unique endeavors. I know that in order for me to make an impact on my own community in the future, I will have to take bold action that may be frightening,“ he shared.

Roark demonstrates that ethos in everything he does. He is an academic superstar at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, VA, with a weighted GPA of 4.512 as an Advanced Placement Scholar with Distinction. He is a National Merit Scholarship finalist and has achieved something common to only 0.1% of high school students … a perfect 36 on the ACT.

In 2017, Roark won first place at the regional Tidewater Robotics and Maker Entrepreneur Challenge, which focused on designing and 3D printing an assistive technology device and devising product business and marketing plans. He also received the prestigious Princeton Book Award in 11th grade. Also in his junior year, Roark won first place in the Environmental Science category in the regional science fair, and his research has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Emerging Investigators.

While his academic resume is impressive, so is his dedication to serve others.

Roark has a passion for public speaking and is proud to use his voice to speak out about youth mental illness. Roark lost two friends to suicide in three years. In response, he began volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the I Need a Lighthouse (suicide prevention) Foundation (INAL). He manages NAMI’s online calendar, raises funds, participates in teen conferences, and is a featured speaker for events that raise awareness of and dispel stigma surrounding youth depression and suicide. He was awarded the 2018 Helen P. Shropshire Human Rights Youth Award by the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission for his mental health advocacy work.

An Eagle scout, Roark has been involved with food, clothing and blanket drives at the family’s various duty stations, and his Eagle Scout project was building a butterfly garden in the courtyard of an inner-city K-12 school in Charleston, S.C.

As a member of the high school crew team, Roark earned two varsity letters and was elected captain his senior year.

As he graduates this year and heads off to college, Roark would like to pursue a career in law, as it offers him a way to combine his many talents and passion to empower others and better his community.

Roark is the son of Capt. Caleb Corson and Dr. Tyler Corson of Virginia Beach, VA.

See highlights from Roark’s long list of achievements:

Meet all of our seven Military Child of the Year® recipients and be sure to join us on Facebook on Thursday, April 19 at 7 pm EST for a live feed of the very special awards gala honoring our outstanding Military Child of the Year recipients. Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making it 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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We caught up with Juanita Collins, Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year® Award for the Coast Guard in 2014. She has been attending University of South Florida, where she is a junior, majoring in biomedical sciences. She plans to graduate in fall 2019, and is still determining her post-graduation plans. She is a second-year resident assistant, president of the National Residence Hall Honorary, and recently joined an acapella singing group. She also has a shadowing position at Bayside Urgent Care Center in Clearwater, Florida. Juanita thanked Operation Homefront for helping make all this possible, and shares what she learned from other award recipients — and shares some advice of her own :

OH: What has been the biggest change in your life since receiving the award

JC: The biggest change in my life since 2014 has definitely been the transition into college life and figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s quite different living on your own and learning how to be independent. I absolutely love my school. Through my undergraduate experience so far, I have learned a lot about myself and about life in general.

OH: Tell us about a fond memory you have from traveling to Washington, D.C., for the gala.

JC: My favorite memory from the Washington trip for gala weekend was probably being up on the stage with my family to receive my award. Throughout that trip, I knew it was special because I was able to share that experience and accomplishment with the people who meant the most to me. It wouldn’t have been the same without them.

OH: You have always been an active volunteer with various organizations. Do you still have time to volunteer, or to help military families?

JC: My most recent plan to help military families is to volunteer at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Florida, when I have time during the weekends. The VA hospital is very close to my school, so that is the least I can do to pay it forward.

OH: Have other military children ever given you advice you valued?

JC: My favorite piece of advice that I’ve gotten from another military child is to be giving. The other recipients from 2014 all displayed such giving hearts, and that’s something I always admired. For example, Kenzie Hall, the Army recipient, created a nonprofit to grant dream wishes to military kids who had a parent injured or killed in combat. That was something that I loved just seeing how young she was and how full of compassion; she was such an example. What I have learned is to always have a giving heart. No bad has ever come out of helping others.

OH: What advice would you give future MCOY award recipients?

JC: For future recipients, I would give the advice to have fun on your trip. It’s a great honor to be recognized, so continue to be awesome. Never take these opportunities for granted, and use the scholarship to do what you really want to do with your life, not what you think your parents want for you to do in school and what career they want for you, and not what you feel will impress your friends or make people think more highly of you. Use that scholarship and put that money toward what you’re passionate about, what you can imagine yourself doing for the rest of your life. Only you truly know that. But also, never doubt yourself. If you choose a major or career path that seems super hard, and you’re scared that you might not make it; go for it. Don’t be afraid to reach a goal because of the time it’ll take to accomplish; the time will pass anyway. Work hard and be determined, and stay focused! Hold that title with pride.

OH: What would you say to your past or future self?

JC: I wish I could say the above advice to my past self. I really could have used this advice, but I’m glad that I learned it while life went on, even if it was the hard way. To my future self, I would like to say, “Wherever you are, I’m glad you’re there. I’m sure it was a tough path to get to where you are, and I’m proud of you.”

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Nominations are now open for the 2018 Military Child of the Year® awards.

Our prestigious award will recognize 7 outstanding young people ages 13 to 18. Six of them will represent a branch of the armed forces — the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard — for their achievements while facing the challenges of military family life. The 7th award is the Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation presented by Booz Allen Hamilton which will honor a young patriot who has designed a bold, creative solution to address a local, regional or global challenge.

Nominate today at http://bit.ly/2cKII81 Deadline to apply is Dec. 4, 2017.

Recipients of the Military Child of the Year® awards will receive $10,000 and a trip to DC for our special awards gala. The recipient of the Innovation Award will receive a $10,000 cash award, donated gifts, and a trip to Washington, DC with a parent or guardian and assistance from Booz Allen Hamilton to advance their project. #MCOY2018

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Mark Newberry, our 2013 Military Child of the Year® for the Air Force, has had quite the journey. Since we last met him, he has pursued his passions that have taken him from the University of Michigan to a pending commission in the U.S. Air Force after graduation in December.

Today, Mark shares with us his incredible story of four years of “Fun, Free-falls, Field Training and Flying Along the Way.” We hope it inspires you as much as it has all of us here at Operation Homefront:

In 2013, I embarked on a journey across the country from Spokane, Washington, to begin school at the University of Michigan, and follow in my father’s footsteps by joining the Air Force ROTC program. (Editor’s Note: Col. Brian Newberry graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1991, and retired in 2014 as wing commander at Fairchild AFB, Washington.)

Meeting all the generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the [Military Child of the Year] gala in Washington, D.C., and seeing the family-first culture of the military being celebrated there inspired me to jump full force into ROTC and do well. Over the next four years, both college and ROTC opened many unexpected doors for me. I started school studying chemistry and planned on being a surgeon. Life, as I had thought, was all planned out. I was doing research in the hospital for a cardiothoracic surgeon, examining what caused esophageal leaks after surgery. Even though my research was extremely exciting, both the hospital experience and organic chemistry convinced me that being a doctor wasn’t where my true passion lied.
At the same time, I was preparing to travel to Alabama and endure the Air Force’s four-week field training course, where cadets are put through an intense test of their leadership abilities. It was in the humid Alabama summer that I fell in love with a new side of the Air Force. So, I decided to try flying and got bit by the bug. I guess being a pilot was in my blood because I completed my first solo flight in a Cessna 172 later that summer.

Returning to school as an upperclassman brought more challenging classes and an increase in the responsibilities I held in my ROTC detachment. It was in these new roles that I grew as a leader, where as a group commander and later vice wing commander, I focused on creating a family-like atmosphere mirroring the same environment that I grew up in as a military child. I also had the opportunity to learn martial arts with the Marine ROTC program, and take those same abilities back to Alabama to be trained as an Air Force senior combatives instructor, where I taught martial arts to cadets at field training. My senior year surprised me with two more opportunities that previously I could only dream of. First, I received a pilot’s slot to attend undergraduate pilot training following graduation. Second, I was able to attend free-fall parachute training at the Air Force Academy, where I successfully completed five free-fall jumps to earn my jump wings. Now, I return to school for one final semester before I graduate in December with a degree in neuroscience and a commission in the world’s greatest Air Force.

One of the greatest honors of my life so far was representing the Air Force in 2013 as an Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year®. I grew up living the Air Force lifestyle, and as a military child, moved ten times in 18 years. I was lucky. I’m now 22 and before the age of 20, I got to travel all around the country. I stood at the base of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, ran along the beaches of Charleston, South Carolina, woke up to the sight of Mount Rainier in Washington, and lived next door to our nation’s capital. I also had the chance to meet people from every walk of life, many of whom are lifelong friends. However, it wasn’t always easy. The most difficult part of growing up came toward the end of my high school years. With my father deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, for my entire junior year, I had to step up for my family. While balancing school and athletics, I had to also be the pillar that supported my mom and brother, which proved to be challenging at times. Then, upon my Dad’s return home, it was time to move again, this time away from my closest childhood friends and right before my senior year, to a smaller, more rural school.

Mark and family at the Military Child of the Year® awards gala in D.C., 2013.

If you would have told me as a high school senior that I would be chosen to represent military children at the Operation Homefront gala, meet the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, and receive an Air Force ROTC scholarship that would afford me opportunities to study what I love, jump out of planes, and become a pilot, I wouldn’t have believed you. Being a military child has afforded me so many opportunities that not many children get to experience. For example, the drastic change in cultures between my school in Virginia and the new one in Washington at times were frustrating to deal with. However, there were many opportunities at my new school that allowed me to be a leader and to help fellow military children that I wouldn’t have had at my old school. At a small school full of military children, they all immediately looked to me, since I was the “commander’s kid.” So I led the only way I knew how, by example. I immersed myself with the cross country and track teams, took an active role in the leadership team, and strived to excel in the classroom as I prepared to apply for colleges. Even though I lived in a fishbowl environment, where every move I made was under a microscope, I made sure that my actions illustrated the high expectations I held for myself. Then, going forward into college, I used that same mindset to lead by example and strive for achievement.

My father nominated me for Military Child of the Year® for staying positive throughout all the moves, epitomizing what military kids go through, where they say, “OK, let’s do this,” and make the best of any situation while their parents serve.

My experiences as a military child are just a snapshot of the sacrifices continuously made by military children. Looking back, I am thankful for the challenges and the opportunities that being a military child gave me. I learned how to adapt, how important family is, and how incredibly blessed I am to be an American. It was at the end of my high school career that I started to realize how my experiences as a military child had shaped me.

For all the military children out there, seize those opportunities. Because of them, I will soon be soaring the big blue skies! Thank you, Operation Homefront, for all that you do to support military families and their children, and helping them follow their dreams!

-Mark

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Operation Homefront’s annual Military Child of the Year® awards recognize six outstanding young people ages 13 to 18. Each of them represent a branch of the armed forces for their scholarship, volunteerism, leadership, extracurricular involvement, and other criteria while facing the challenges of military family life. There is a seventh award for a young person age 13-18. This award is the Military Child of the Year Award for Innovation® presented by Booz Allen Hamilton. With a new invention, improvement to existing technology, creation of a new nonprofit or community service group, or expansion of an existing membership organization, the winner of this award shows the power of innovative thinking.

Nominations now open for:
2018 Military Child of the Year®
2018 Military Child of the Year® Innovation Award

 

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