Unsung Heroes

By Karen Jowers , Journalist, Gannett Government Media Corp.

They’re stellar students, they’re passionate about helping others in their communities, and they manage to squeeze the most out of every minute of the day.

Yet the winners of Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year awards are also humble.

“I knew my competition was stiff, thinking about the other military kids I know who have done so many great things,” said Nicole Goetz, Air Force Child of the Year and daughter of Chief Master Sgt. Michael Goetz.

“Military kids are the unsung heroes,” Nicole said.

The winners were selected from more than 1,400 nominations recognizing children who thrive in the face of the challenges of military life and demonstrate leadership within their families and their communities.

The ranks of the nominees were filled with kids who have gone above and beyond to help other military kids, said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer of Operation Homefront, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency financial and other assistance to families of service members and wounded warriors.

The nominees included a number of special needs military children whose personal challenges have been exacerbated by other challenges of military life — yet they still thrive and give back to their communities.

Operation Homefront initiated the competition because “military children are our youngest heroes,” Knotts said. “We believe the sacrifices of the family are worthy of recognition. While service members and spouses choose the lifestyle, children are born into it, experiencing the challenges and benefits of military life.”

Each winner receives $5,000 and is being flown with a parent to Washington, D.C., for a recognition ceremony.

Maggie Rochon: Informing others

Maggie Rochon’s concern for military children led her to organize a panel of experts to give teachers insight into the issues of military children as her senior project.

The project has had an impact far beyond her school, Jacksonville High School near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“Some kids are not bad kids. They may just be acting out,” the 17-year-old said. “Their parents may be deployed, or they come home different from deployment. I wanted teachers to understand what military children are going through, and to let them know about resources” to help them.

Maggie organized a panel of experts for a seminar to help teachers understand the stresses of wartime deployments on students and the effects of post-traumatic stress on families.

School officials videotaped the panel and are working to incorporate it into training throughout the county. Some have talked about taking it to other schools beyond the county, Maggie said.In addition, Maggie has volunteered for three years with Hope for the Warriors, where her mother works. She also volunteers at the USO and the Museum of the Marine — besides being a cheerleader, involved in sports, and a member of the National Honor Society.

“I want to brighten people’s day and help them start to think about things in a more positive way,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s really about how you make people feel.”

Maggie’s dad is Chief Maritime Enforcement Specialist Gene Rochon. Maggie plans to study political science and go to law school. Ë

Melissa Howland: Giving back

For nine months of every year, basketball was Melissa Howland’s world. She was a promising young athlete on her school’s varsity team until she was diagnosed with a disorder that allows her immune system to attack the platelets in her blood. Without platelets, her blood can’t clot and she could quickly bleed to death.

“When I couldn’t play sports, I was really down and out,” said Melissa, whose family lives in Millis, Mass.

Even worse, when she was first diagnosed with the disease, her father, Reserve Chief Navy Diver Glenn Howland of SEAL Team 18, was deployed to Iraq.

Melissa, 17, volunteers in the maternity ward at a local hospital and with Special Olympics, among other things.

“I love working with Special Olympics,” she said. “I have great respect for how they hold events and treat their athletes.”

Her blood disorder, while devastating, took her in a new direction.

“If it hadn’t happened, I would still be playing basketball,” she said. “I wouldn’t have time, and also wouldn’t have had the idea that I needed to give back. In the hospital, there were so many volunteers doing so much for my family. After seeing that, I felt it was my duty to give back.

“I’m really honored that out of all the people in the country, they chose me,” she said, “especially since my work is more focused on the community in general.”

Melissa will attend The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and is leaning toward archeology.

Kyle Hoeye: Fostering pride

Kyle Hoeye’s favorite part of teaching military children to make videos comes at the end, when their videos are shown.

“It’s neat to see their faces,” said Kyle, 16, of Tucson, Ariz.

The kids usually have a choice of topics: how deployment affects them; how deployment affects others; or the differences between military and civilian children, Kyle said.

Through an Arizona 4-H program, he shows kids ages 8 to 18 how to use a video camera to shoot about four to five hours worth of film.

Once they’re done filming, he shows them the basics of editing.

“One reason I like this program is that it gives kids a chance to voice their opinion,” he said.

When children talk to him about their parents’ military service, he frames his questions in a positive way and talks to them about why their parents deploy.

“I tell them, ‘It’s something they’re proud of, and it’s something you should be proud of,‘“ he said.

Kyle serves on the Arizona National Guard Youth Advisory Council, has a 4.0 grade-point average and is heavily involved in his Key Club’s volunteer efforts. One of those projects was to help hand-write hundreds of letters for Operation Military Kids’ Hero Packs for local military children, thanking them for their families’ service.

Kyle’s dad, Sgt. 1st Class James Hoeye, is an active-duty member of the Arizona National Guard.

The high school junior is looking into serving in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps.

Taylor Dahl-Sims: Weathering adversity

Since ninth grade, Taylor Dahl-Sims, 17, of Oceanside, Calif., has been in the honor guard in her Air Force JROTC at Vista High School. She performs a variety of services in the community, but that one is most important to her.

“I get to meet the families, and present the flags to the families of the deceased,” she said. “It’s a real honor. I get to show how much I appreciate their service, and show my respect.”

Over the last four years, she has performed this solemn duty at Riverside National Cemetery once a month, each time presenting the colors to at least three families, she said.

The honor roll student volunteers her time working with senior citizens and in community cleanups. She, her mother Mandy and her stepfather Staff Sgt. Erik Sims have long been involved in their community together.

They formed the nonprofit North Star Group, hosting baby showers on base and providing pampering for pregnant spouses whose husbands are deployed. Their current project is a pampering day for about 20 spouses of wounded warriors.

The family knows firsthand the challenges that the families of wounded warriors can face. Staff Sgt. Sims was wounded in 2008 in a roadside bomb blast in Iraq and took shrapnel to the face. He also had a traumatic brain injury and spent time in and out of the hospital.

When her stepfather returned, Taylor helped take care of her younger siblings — including her baby brother who had been injured at birth — while her mom and stepfather dealt with his war-related injuries.

Nicole Goetz: High on helping

“I absolutely love playing bingo,” said Nicole Goetz, 17, who regularly hangs out with senior citizens, including many veterans, at local retirement homes. She became involved in her community when her family moved to Panama City, Fla., near Tyndall Air Force Base before her eighth-grade year.

Her dad, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Michael Goetz, has deployed several times during her high school years and is now in Afghanistan. Nicole decided to make the best of things and get to know people by getting involved.

She realized that “I get a high from helping others.”

Being part of her Key Club in high school has helped multiply her efforts, Nicole said.

But the project closest to her heart is one she helped organize with 22 local schools — sending thousands of holiday cards and letters, toiletry items, and cookies after a big cookie-baking party to eight bases in Afghanistan.

Among her many other activities and accomplishments, Nicole has a 4.0 grade-point average, has earned a Presidential Award for community service and has raised money for numerous charities, including leading a donation drive for Haiti relief.

Her goal is “to work with the world’s children,” possibly with the United Nations, after majoring in international relations.

The day of the announcement of the Operation Homefront winners, Nicole said, “My dad emailed me and said whatever happens today, just know I’m really proud of you. You’re going to do great things in life.’ “At that point, it didn’t matter whether I won — although it’s a great honor — because my dad means so much to me.”

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