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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and singer-songwriter Bret Michaels spoke at the 2014 Military Child of the Year Awards in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. (Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle/Army)
After Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey donned a bandana to sing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” with singer-songwriter Bret Michaels, the senior leaders from each of the services took the stage to introduce the real stars of the show — the five military children from each of the service branches who are recipients of Operation Homefront’s 2014 Military Child of the Year awards.
“These young men and women are and will continue to be leaders of consequence for themselves, their families, their communities and ultimately for the nation,” Dempsey said. “They’re not satisfied just to be average. ... They want to make a difference.”
Michaels, who was the keynote speaker, told the gathering, which included a number of military personnel and family members, that he appreciated their service and sacrifices. “I get to play music the way I want to, look the way I do, because of the sacrifice you all make,” he said. He praised the military children throughout his short speech, noting the “sacrifice these kids make every day ... facing adversity, overcoming adversity to turn it into an opportunity.”
Michaels announced he is donating $2,000 to each of the children, noting they work with “such great causes.”
Each youth received $5,000 from Operation Homefront and a laptop, as well as the trip to Washington, D.C., for the celebration April 10. The winners in this sixth annual event were chosen from a pool of nearly 1,000 nominees; the selection committee included active-duty and retired service members, spouses of senior military leaders, veterans service organization leaders, teachers and community members.
“It’s extremely humbling. I thought I was involved in lots of things until I got around these kids who are so dedicated to all of their service,” said Ryan Curtin, 17, the Navy recipient, after the award ceremony and several days spent with the other youth and their parents. “If anything, it’s the most humbling experience I’ve ever had. I thought I was almost alone in my commitment to helping others.” Meeting other kids with the same or even more involvement than he has “is really a nice thing to see,” he said.
Ryan’s mother, Lisa, said she felt proud of all the children, and enjoyed getting to know them and “seeing how genuine and passionate they are about what they do. Seeing them all be recognized, and knowing that each one of them felt that they represented so many more military children — that came through the whole three days we were here,” she said. Ryan’s father, Capt. Rex Curtin, commodore of Training Air Wing 4 at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, nominated him for the award for his activities ranging from volunteering for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and Blue Star Families, to helping new students adjust to their new school and community. His Eagle Scout project involved leading 57 Marine, Navy, Boy Scout and civilian volunteers to build a staircase and deck and do a major landscape upgrade for a Marine facility on base.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, in introducing 16-year-old Kenzie Hall of Temecula, Calif., thanked her parents, Army Capt. Jason Hall and Aerica Hall, and her younger sister Madison. “It takes a family to support these great young men and women we’re honoring here tonight,” Odierno said. He noted that Kenzie has attended 12 schools.
Odierno said when her father deployed and her parents gave her the opportunity to pursue her dream of acting, Kenzie also turned it into something positive, starting an organization to help children of the fallen and wounded live out their dreams. “She understood service at a very young age. ... She represents the resiliency, the vitality, the strength of young people, and we are so proud of her,” Odierno said.
After the ceremony, Kenzie said, “I’m so moved by it all, so overwhelmed and so grateful for this opportunity to come to meet all these amazing military kids.”
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Manson Brown, deputy commandant for mission support, described Juanita Collins, 17, of Clearwater, Fla., as a “positive, passionate and powerful force” in her community. Juanita, who is headed to Florida State University in the fall in her quest to become a pediatrician, is ranked in the top 10 of her class of 305 seniors, is president of her senior class and was junior class president, and was most valuable player of the varsity volleyball team for all four of her years at Largo High School. Brown noted that’s even more notable because she bounced back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered at the beginning of this season.
Brown recognized Juanita’s mother, Chief Yeoman Tafaoga Collins, stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater; her father, Ricky, and her three siblings. Among other things, Juanita received the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award in 2013 for her community service; was chosen to travel to the Dominican Republic for a service project; and volunteers in numerous other ways for her school and community.
Juanita said it was hard to explain her feelings after receiving her award. “It’s an amazing award and opportunity. Being able to meet the other recipients and other service members who serve our country ... It was a great trip. It was a definite blessing.”
Assistant Marine Corps Commandant John M. Paxton Jr. noted that with 15-year-old Logan Jordan, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” citing the service of his parents, Master Sgt. Christoper Jordan and his mother, ReBecca Jordan. Master Sgt. Jordan “is not only a great artilleryman and great Marine, he’s instilled in his children [the importance of] service to this country and volunteering for others at a young age,” Paxton said. Among other things, Logan is president of his own philanthropic organization, Logan’s Heroes Foundation, which helps wounded warriors, first responders and disadvantaged children. He was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at an early age and says giving back to others helps him in many ways, including physically.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh noted that 17-year-old Gage Dabin’s mother, Jennifer Adam, is a cancer survivor. “One of the reasons we’re sitting here with Gage is, he helped his mom get through that time,” in 2008 through 2010, Welsh said. “Everything is an opportunity” for Gage, he said. Gage’s volunteer activities are many, including helping serve meals at a local soup kitchen and helping out at the local VA hospital, a homeless shelter and a food bank, and volunteering at a local elementary school. His stepfather, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Tobias Adam, is deputy fire chief with the 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
Welsh encouraged those in the audience to come talk with Gage, because “you’ll feel better about everything in your life.”
He said Gage told him “my mom is love,” and “my dad shows me what it’s like to be a man. He shows me every single day.”
As Gage walked back to his seat after receiving the award, Jennifer Adam wiped tears from her eyes.
“Moments are granted to you, and this was my moment,” she said. “I’m very grateful. ... You breathe for the moment. I got to breathe for this moment.”