By Elaine Sanchez
ARLINGTON, Va. (American Forces Press Service) – From a 9-year-old blogger to a 17-year-old community-service volunteer, children from military families took center stage here last night during Operation Homefront’s 2012 Military Child of the Year awards gala.
The military’s top brass heaped praise on five of these children — one from each service plus the Coast Guard — for their resilience, strength of character and leadership.
Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to military families, annually gives the award to a child from each service to honor military kids’ service and sacrifice.
These children are the “best of the best,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told an audience of military and family members. Joining the chairman was his wife, Deanie, top military leaders from each service, and special guest speaker, Medal of Honor recipient Army Sgt. 1st Class Sammy L. Davis.
“If I had to be identified as the best of the best among any group in America today, I’d actually like to be known as the best of the best among military kids,” Dempsey told the audience, “because of what we ask them to do, and what they do.”
The honorees included a 9-year-old who started a blog to support other children dealing with deployment to a 17-year-old who dealt with her Army father’s illness, then the loss of her soldier brother in Afghanistan.
Though people have said military children are tough and resilient despite their hardships, the chairman said, he takes an opposite view.
“I think that our military kids are who they are because of the hardships,” he said, citing their adaptability, strength and ability to embrace diversity. “Kids become who they are because of what we ask them to do and because of what they see us do [and] see their moms and dads do.”
These children are the nation’s future leaders, Dempsey noted. He said Nathaniel Richards, the Navy’s Military Child of the Year, put it best when he wrote this on his blog site: “Even though we are young, we still have great ideas. We can help. We can make a difference.”
Dempsey thanked Operation Homefront for its efforts to honor military children. “Let me tell you how proud we are of America’s military kids,” he said. “And let me tell you how very proud we are of the five that have been identified tonight as the best of the best.”
Following Dempsey’s remarks, senior service leaders presented the awards to their service’s honoree — first citing their exceptional qualities and accomplishments and passing on their personal gratitude for their service and strength.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army’s vice chief of staff, acknowledged military children’s challenges, particularly after a decade of war. Yet, he said, “it is remarkable to see these young people routinely rise to the challenges of military life and excel under what are very difficult circumstances.”
Through their unyielding support, military children increase not only their military parents’ strength, but also their resilience, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz added.
Following the awards ceremony, actor Gary Sinise, a staunch military supporter famous for his role as a wounded warrior in the movie “Forrest Gump,” shared his gratitude to the children via prerecorded remarks. “You are representing the best of our military youth,” he told the military children of the year. “We as a country earnestly want to honor you for the special contribution you have given your family and your nation.
“There is no greater sacrifice than to serve our nation and you young people are living examples of that dedication and commitment,” he added.
Sinise introduced Davis, who is among the 81 living Medal of Honor recipients, to a standing ovation and resounding applause. Davis received the nation’s highest military honor for his heroism during the Vietnam War.
Some people believe today’s kids are going in the wrong direction, Davis said, but he doesn’t believe this is the case. “Truly we have good kids in this nation, and what we’ve seen here tonight is just proof in the pudding.”
Seeing the children receive their honors, he added, “made my heart swell with pride.”
Amelia McConnell, the Army’s Military Child of the Year, said she was “honored and humbled” by the honor and the opportunity to represent thousands of other military children. “I love being a military kid,” she said with a smile.
Each award recipient will receive $5,000 from Operation Homefront, along with additional gifts from nonprofit organizations such as Soldiers’ Angels and Veterans United Foundation. Jim Knotts, Operation Homefront’s president and CEO, called the honorees examples for thousands of other military children. “I know you will all do us proud,” he told them.
A committee of active duty service members, family readiness support assistants, teachers, military mothers and community members selected the children from a pool of more than 1,000 nominees.
The recipients of this year’s Military Child of the Year award are:
— James Nathaniel Richards, of Jamul, Calif., for the Navy. This 9-year-old’s three brothers and father all were deployed at the same time. To share his lessons learned, he started a blog for other military children called “Nate the Great: A Military Brat.” He leads the anti-bullying committee at his school and volunteers at the USO — clocking more than 200 hours last year collecting Christmas toys for children in need and wrapping hundreds of stockings to send to troops in Afghanistan.
— Amelia McConnell, of Carlisle Barracks, Pa., for the Army. At 17, McConnell is the youngest of six children. She’s moved with her family nine times, and her father has deployed three times. In 2006, after her father returned from Iraq, he was diagnosed with leukemia. After six months of treatments, the disease appeared to be in remission. He returned to Iraq in 2007. Two years later, her only brother, Army Sgt. Andrew McConnell, was killed in Afghanistan. A year later, her father deployed to Afghanistan shortly after the family moved to Pennsylvania from overseas. While helping her mother at home, McConnell also served as the vice president as the National Art Honor Society, and she is a member of the Germany National Honor Society.
— Chelsea Rutherford, 17, of Panama City, Fla., for the Air Force. She has two parents in the military and has attended five different schools. Still, she’s an honor roll student with a 3.6 grade point average and serves as the vice president of the Student-to-Student Club, which introduces new students to the campus and helps to ease their transition. She’s also an avid volunteer who clocked nearly 180 hours with nonprofit organizations in 2011, and is a member in the Society of Leadership and Success and the National Society of High School Scholars.
— Erika Booth, 16, of Jacksonville, N.C., for the Marine Corps. She was an avid softball player until she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that affects her blood and requires painful monthly kidney checks. While dealing with her own health issues, Booth also helps to care for her 13-year-old brother, who has autism. Despite these challenges, Booth is ranked first in her class academically, serves as the junior class president and vice president of her local Health Occupations Students of America chapter, and volunteers as a mentor with the Drug Education for Youth program. She also works with other military children and adults to help them cope with the challenges of military life, and has traveled abroad with the People to People Ambassador Program.
— Alena Deveau, 17, of Fairfax, Va., for the Coast Guard. She has visited 40 states during her father’s career. When she was in the seventh grade, Deveau’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer, followed by hip cancer. He underwent multiple surgeries before being diagnosed with brain cancer. Her father, who now is medically retired, was hospitalized for nearly three months. Deveau’s mother spent her time by her husband’s bedside, and Deveau held up the home front, helping to care for her 15-year-old sister. Still, she found time to volunteer as an organizer of the local Veterans Day dinner.