Multiple moves, changing schools, losing friends and finding something new around the corner – these hallmarks of life for military children are as common as they are notable. For 17-year-old Amelia McConnell, war, death, illness, family, friends, faith and spirit have also punctuated military life. Now, her sacrifices and achievements have been recognized by her selection as Army Child of the Year by Operation Homefront.
The five military children of the year are the “best of the best,” according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who addressed the audience of military and family members gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the children’s awards. Medal of Honor-recipient Sgt. 1st Class Sammy L. Davis joined the chairman as a special guest speaker.
“If I had to be identified as the best of the best among any group in America today,” Dempsey said, “I’d actually like to be known as the best of the best among military kids, because of what we ask them to do, and what they do.”
“What this whole experience has shown me are the effects of 9/11 for my generation,” McConnell explained. “I was in class in Vicenza, Italy, when the attacks occurred and it didn’t really sink in to me what it meant. As a result of that day, both my father and brother deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think I speak for the kids who are now realizing the impacts.”
She was surprised to receive the award.
“Knowing how many kids were nominated for this, it was a shock to be named a winner,” she said. “It’s an honor to even be nominated, to represent all military kids. It’s a blessing to be the one who is able to share my story.”
McConnell is the youngest child of Col. G. Scott and Kathryn McConnell. She and her family have moved nine times since she was born, and are currently based at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., where her father is the faculty director for Army Planning at the U.S. Army War College. While military families become accustomed to the upheaval associated with relocating every few years, experiencing a loved one’s deployment to a war zone is another matter.
“(My dad’s) first deployment was a challenge for me — I was only in the fifth grade. I was watching my mom run all over the place with six kids trying to get us all to our activities. It was an adjustment for all of us,” McConnell said, adding that his homecoming required additional adjustments.
“It was a big transition, going from a year of only hearing his voice every few days to having him back in the house,” she explained.
Then, her father was diagnosed with leukemia.
“It was really hard because all I wanted was my dad because he was home,” she said. “He was always high-spirited, but we knew he was sick. It was hard but I did my best to help my mom.”
Once he finished his treatments and the cancer was in remission, he again deployed to Iraq in 2007.
“That was even tougher,” she said. “I just wanted that time with him. Having that taken away was difficult, but I understand now that was his job and he loves doing it. He’s great at what he does.”
She said that her family togetherness was a vital part of helping her get through the tough times.
“I look up to them. They set the path for me and taught me some very important lessons,” she said, adding that close friends who understood her experiences also helped.
“While my dad was deployed, I had friends who supported me because they understood what was going through our minds with worry and the stress at home … that ‘need’ to talk to your dad but you can’t,” McConnell said. “We all understood the sacrifices that were being made. So when we were having those rough days we (could) relate to each other.”
She admitted that while the stresses of having a parent in the military can be hard to manage, the experience does have its rewards.
“It can be a struggle at times, but it’s also helped shape who I am.”
In 2009, tragedy struck when her brother, Sgt. Andrew McConnell, was killed while serving in Afghanistan. That is why her father’s most recent deployment was especially tough, McConnell explained.
“It was tough to have him gone again,” she said. “Plus, he was going to the place where my brother was killed the year before.”
Through everything, McConnell has continued to excel and support causes directly related to what her family has endured. She volunteers for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity her brother designated for donations in the event of his death, and also helps raise money for cancer.
McConnell, who plays acoustic guitar in her church band, also maintains a 3.75 grade point average, and is a member of several honor societies at Carlisle High School, including the German National Honor Society and the National Art Honor Society, in which she served as vice president.
In addition, she plays on her school’s varsity soccer team and helps “pay-it-forward” by volunteering as a soccer coach for the Youth Services sports program.
“When I was a kid I remember playing sports at the Youth Services with the other kids and it was such a great experience,” she said. “I wanted to help create that for others. I love teaching others and sharing my love of the game.”
McConnell, who will graduate in the spring and plans to attend Longwood University as a graphic design major, shared some advice for other military children.
“Get involved. Moving around there are plenty of opportunities to get and involved and once you are you will meet more people and become more comfortable,” she said. “It really makes it an easier transition.”
About the award
A committee that included active duty military personnel, family readiness support assistants, teachers, military mothers and community members chose McConnell from more than 1,000 nominees as the Army’s military child of the year. A teacher and family friend, Theresa Dixon, nominated her for the award.
“The sons and daughters of America’s servicemembers learn what patriotism is at a very young age,” said Jim Knotts, President & CEO of Operation Homefront. “Children in military families understand sacrifice and live with the concept of service. This is what the Military Child of the Year Award honors.”
Each award recipient received $5,000 and was honored at a special recognition ceremony, April 5, 2012. As part of the award, they received a private tour of the White House and the Capitol and were honored at a gala later that night.
Winners representing the other services were:
– James Nathaniel Richards, of Jamul, Calif., for the Navy
– Chelsea Rutherford, 17, of Panama City, Fla., for the Air Force
– Erika Booth, 16, of Jacksonville, N.C., for the Marine Corps
– Alena Deveau, 17, of Fairfax, Va., for the Coast Guard.
Editor’s note: Ideal candidates for the Military Child of the Year Award demonstrate resilience and strength of character, and thrive in the face of the challenges of military life. They demonstrate leadership within their families and within their communities. For more information visit http://www.operationhomefront.net/.