2017 Service Members of the Year honored on Capitol Hill

Every year, Military Times recognizes five exemplary service members during an award ceremony on Capitol Hill. This year, Sen. Joni Ernst, along with many congressional, military and community leaders, came together to honor them.

Military Times honored the 2017 Service Members of the Year Wednesday evening in a ceremony held at the Reserve Officers Association on Capitol Hill.

In addition to generals and admirals from all five of the uniformed services who presented the awards, the ceremony featured Iowa Senator and retired Iowa Army National Guard Lt. Col. Joni Ernst as the keynote speaker.

Backstage before the ceremony began, Sen. Ernst presented the Service Member of the Year recipients with her senate coin featuring the four pillar traits she strives to live by: prudent risk, leadership, service and gratitude. When discussing leadership, Ernst highlighted how service members at any rank can be true leaders.

"A title doesn’t make a leader," said Ernst. "Inspiring organizations, making them better because they want to be, not because they have to be, that is what leaders do."

Army Major Gen. Hugh Van Roosen presented the Army Times SMOY award to Maj. Christopher Mercado, a co-founder of the veteran suicide prevention organization Objective Zero Foundation.

The Objective Zero Foundation launched the Objective Zero app under Mercado, a feature that allows veterans to get in touch with someone who can support them via message, video or phone call at the push of a button.

Sen. Joni Ernst gives the keynote address during the Military Times 2017 Service Member of the Year award ceremony on Capitol Hill, July 12, 2017.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Milbrett/Staff

Following the presentation of the award to Maj. Mercado, the officer closed his acceptance speech with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi.

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

Mercado, a member of the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, has deployed five times, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His awards and decorations include three Bronze Star Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, 10 Army Achievement Medals, and the NATO Medal.

National Defense University President and Marine Corps Major Gen. Frederick Padilla presented the Marine Corps Times award to Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Robert.

"It’s a great honor to honor the accomplishments of Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Robert, the 2017 Marine of the year, as he represents all the best things that our Marine Corps stands for," Padilla said.

Gunny Robert has had four combat deployments, including a 2010 deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan, with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in which his battalion took more casualties than any other Marine unit in the Afghanistan war.

Robert has been stationed at Marine Barracks Washington, DC since 2013, where he serves as a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon. A former infantryman, Robert has a surprising leadership style.

"I do not ever yell," Robert said. "Being a leader and being a Marine, that’s a hard trait to have. As you know, especially in the infantry, we’re very loud; we’re very outspoken. All of the Marines around me — to include higher and lower — they all know when I’m upset."

In addition to his service to the United States, Robert has also spent more than 10 years volunteering with the Special Olympics where he has helped set up events, coached athletes and partnered with athletes to compete alongside them.

The Navy Times award was presented by Vice. Adm. Forrest Faison, Surgeon General Chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, to Information Systems Technician 1st Class (IW/EXW) Justin Sullivan.

A 10-year veteran of the Navy, Sullivan served four years assisting Navy SEALS in Afghanistan. While stationed at a remote operating bases in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, Sullivan served as a radio operator and supported medical evacuations. While there, he was credited with saving the lives of two local Afghan soldiers, strengthening U.S. ties with Afghanistan.

Sullivan was presented with the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal for volunteering over 1,400 hours coaching the Naples Tiger Sharks Swim Team while stationed in Naples, Italy. Sullivan has been awarded two President's Volunteer Service Awards—one bronze and one silver—and has been given the Navy League’s Outstanding Service Member Award.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Geary presented the Air Force Times award to Tech. Sgt. Megan Harper.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Geary and Tech. Sgt. Megan Harper sing the Air Force "Off We Go" following the presentation of the Air Force Times Service Member of the Year award at the Reserve Officers Association on Capitol Hill, Wednesday July 12, 2017.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Milbrett/Staff

Serving for nearly 15 years with the Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Harper has deployed five times, including two deployments to Iraq as a security forces airman.

In May 2004, Harper became the ninth woman in Air Force history to finish the elite security forces Phoenix Raven program The Raven Program specially trains airmen to secure aircraft while in flight, providing ground security when those aircraft land in dangerous territory.

As a Military Training Instructor at the Air Force’s Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Harper has 1,125 new airmen and graduated 22 flights.

Harper saved the lives of two people in a span of less than three hours in May 2016. She first performed the Heimlich maneuver on an Air Force trainee who was choking in a dining facility. Shortly after while leaving Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Harper saw a pedestrian who had been struck by a vehicle. She performed first aid on the victim, redirected traffic and talked to her constantly to keep her from falling into shock. She then waited at the hospital to explain what had happened to family members of the victim until 2:30 am. For her actions, Harper received the Air Force Achievement Medal.

The Navy Times Coast Guardsman of the Year award was presented by Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel to Electrician’s Mate 1st Class William Gore.

During a 2011 trip to his wife Judith’s native Honduras, the couple was shocked by the level of poverty they saw in in parts of the country. From that experience, they created their own non-profit, Danilo’s Cares, named for Judith’s father, Danilo Martinez. The non-profit has provided 3,000 Honduran children with free dental care, funded in part by thousands of dollars’ worth of donations from the Gores.

In addition to the Sen. Joni Ernst and the various service members that spoke, a prayer was given by U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired rear admiral and chief of chaplains for the Navy. Other notable attendees included Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs; Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired one-star Air Force general; and Sgt. Ivor Griffin, a 91-year-old Montford Point Marine.

The 2017 Service Members of the Year receive full scholarships to Kaplan University, the education sponsor of the Military Times 2017 Service Member of the Year award. July 12, 2017.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Milbrett/Staff

To conclude the ceremony, the five award winners were presented with full scholarships to Kaplan University, the education sponsor of the award. The scholarship can be used by the service members, their spouses or their adult children.