By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, VA, April 8, 2011 - Melissa Howland, a high school senior, was diagnosed with a blood-clotting disorder the year her Navy father deployed to Iraq.
Last year, she donated nearly 500 volunteer hours to 12 causes, including the hospital where she was treated.
Howland was one of the five military children –- one from each service -- honored last night for their resilience, strength of character and leadership during Operation Homefront's 2011 Military Child of the Year award ceremony here.
First Lady Michelle Obama, keynote speaker for the event, called Howland and the other recipients "shining examples" of what youth can accomplish with "a little will, a little passion, and a little determination."
Obama said Howland could have chosen to feel sorry for herself, instead, "she decided –- and these are her words -– 'You can't go wrong giving back.'"
"Each of you young people already knows that your families are proud of you. You know that your communities are proud of you. Your parents' services are proud of you," the first lady said. "But tonight I want you to know that my husband and I are proud of you -- very proud."
Obama said she and her husband know of the honorees' achievements in school -– "they're amazing" -- and the countless hours they've spent volunteering in their communities and caring for their families.
"I'm here tonight because I want our country to know about you all, as well," she said. "I want our country to know about the five of you and about all the military kids and families all across this country."
Obama said it's time for every American to step up and show gratitude for military families. Next week, the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, plan to launch a nationwide campaign that will call on all Americans to honor, recognize and support military families.
"Our message is very clear: It's that every American has the ability -- and the obligation -- to give something back to our military families," she said.
Obama said she and Biden will hit the road in the coming months to highlight the nation's stand-out businesses, nonprofits and community efforts.
"We're going to be doing everything that we can to tell the stories of our military families," she said.
Most people are aware of the sacrifices military members make, Obama said, but may be less aware that the military force is "largely a force of families." More than half of the active-duty force is married, she noted, and there are nearly 2 million military children.
"A lot of folks don't realize that when our troops are called to serve, their families serve, too," she said. "A lot of folks simply don't know the stories of our military families and their kids."
Obama shared the story of 17-year-old Nicole Goetz, the Air Force's Military Child of the Year. Goetz tutors her younger brother, cheers him up while their father is deployed, and has performed 500 hours of community service -- all while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, the first lady said.
Obama pointed out that the teen's father, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Michael Goetz, traveled here from Afghanistan to see his daughter get her award in person.
Military children shoulder additional responsibilities not only when their parents are deployed, but when they return home as well, the first lady said.
"And when a parent comes home wounded, the result can be a real role reversal," she said. "It can mean taking care of Mom or Dad who once took care of you; taking on responsibilities that would be overwhelming for most adults, let alone for most kids."
That's exactly what 17-year-old Taylor Dahl-Sims, the Marine Corps' Military Child of the Year did, Obama said.
Dahl-Sims' baby brother was injured at birth and her house flooded –- all while her stepfather was on his fifth deployment. She helped care for the baby, clean up the house and, when her stepfather returned home with a traumatic brain injury, she continued to pitch in to care for her family.
"So when we talk about service to our country, when we talk about all that sacrifice for a cause, when we talk about patriotism and courage and resilience, we're not just talking about our troops and our veterans," Obama said, "we're talking about our military families, as well."
And military children, she said, "play their own very unique role in keeping our country safe and preserving the freedoms that we all hold dear.
"I think we could learn a thing or two from a couple of our honorees tonight," she added.
Following the first lady's remarks, top military leaders presented an award to their service's award recipient. The recipients include:
-- For the Army, 16-year-old Kyle Hoeye, of Tucson, Ariz., who worked to help other military children become more resilient during each of his father's three deployments. He's one of only two teens in Arizona certified to teach military kids how to use advanced technology through the 4-H program. He was instrumental in putting together Operation Military Kid's Hero Packs and has handwritten hundreds of letters to local military children, thanking them for their service.
-- For the Navy, Howland, of Millis, Mass., volunteers in the local hospital's maternity ward every Sunday. Her father was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and stationed, unaccompanied, in California in 2007 and 2008. Howland keeps her spirits up during her father's absences by doing community service. In 2010, she donated 498 volunteer hours to 12 causes.
-- For the Air Force, Goetz, of Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., volunteered at the local youth center, her church, veterans and nursing homes, and joined a variety of high school clubs. She also organized 21 local schools to create and send hundreds of homemade Christmas cards, cookies and care packages to troops overseas. At home, she helps her 10-year-old brother with his school work. And when he's feeling down and missing their dad, who is deployed in Afghanistan, she takes him to the movies.
-- For the Marine Corps, Dahl-Sims, of Oceanside, Calif., helped her mother with her baby brother's medical care after an injury. Her stepfather returned home from his fifth deployment with a traumatic brain injury and, again, she stepped in to help during his recovery. She also pitches in with her parents' nonprofit, The North Star Group, helping to host baby showers on base and provide pampering for pregnant spouses whose husbands are deployed.
-- For the Coast Guard, 17-year-old Margaret Rochon, of Jacksonville, N.C., organized a seminar about the stresses of wartime deployment on students and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on families. The seminar was required for all teachers in her county and included a panel of six nationally known experts, including a retired major general. School administrators taped the session and have made it part of the formal annual training for teachers in her county.
A committee of active-duty service members, family readiness support assistants, teachers, military mothers and community members chose the award recipients. The winners received $5,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.
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