Military Child of Year learns life lessons from late father
April 29, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 29, 2010) -- Willie Banks III has big plans.
He wants to go to West Point and become a general in the Army, and when he's done with that, he'd like to play in the NFL.
At 10 years old, Operation Homefront's 2010 Military Child of the Year has set himself some high standards.
Chosen out of about 700 children aged eight to 18 nominated on Operation Homefront's website during the Month of the Military Child, the Fort Lee, Va., fourth-grader's story stood out. Willie was endorsed for the award by Brig. Gen. Jesse R. Cross, commandant of the Quartermaster Center and School at Fort Lee, who mentors Willie.
As part of the award, Willie and his family were brought to Washington, D.C., where he was honored at a luncheon, got a personal tour of the White House by first lady Michelle Obama, and received $5,000.
"I'm only going to spend $500," Willie said of the money. The rest, he promised, is going to be saved for college.
Part of his drive comes from his mother, a chief warrant officer in the Army. Also, he has specific life guidance left to him by his father, who died of colon cancer when Willie was only 4 years old.
Willie's father, Willie Banks Jr., was a major in the Army when he was diagnosed with cancer. At the same time, Willie's mother, Felicia, was pregnant with Willie.
Knowing he would most likely miss the defining moments in his son's life, his father wrote Willie several letters, one to be opened every five years on his birthday until he is 35.
"He wanted so badly to be a father," said Felicia in a Flint Journal interview. "This was his way of being there even though he's not there. He's still teaching Willie how to be a man."
Felicia calls the letters "tips," which leave Willie advice and guidance on how to live his life. They also leave Willie something to live up to, and help shape him into the man his father envisioned.
"They tell him what his dad expects from him ... keeping God first, family in sight, ensuring that he's a good son, and that he protects his sister," Felicia said of the letters.
Felicia said her husband also left a few notes for their daughter, Lynn, now 6, who was an infant when her father died, and that reading the messages he left for their children helps her cope.
"It helps me a lot," Felicia explained. "Instilling what our plan was prior to him passing away. It also assists me in grooming a young man without a father in the house."
But even though Willie's father is able to assist in parenting through his letters, Felicia assures it has not been easy.
"It was very difficult to say the least," Felicia said of losing her husband. "I don't really know a word that describes the loss of your best friend. Everyone thinks that with cancer, you can project, and it'll be easier ... but it's not easy."
And while Lynn was too young when he died to remember her father, Willie recalls details like watching Animal Planet and eating cherries with his dad, that keep his memory alive.
When Felicia deployed to Iraq just one year after her husband passed, Willie said he was sad, but he understood his mom had an important job to do.
"I missed her ... I hadn't seen her in a long time," said Willie, who stayed with family in Michigan during his mother's deployment.
With the wisdom of a child older than his years, Willie has some advice for children going through similar situations.
"All you have to do is pray for other people ... then something good is going to come back to you," Willie said.
He also said that children should not be concerned about losing a parent, because a lot of people don't get cancer. "You shouldn't even worry about that," he said.
Originally unaware that he was even nominated for the Military Child of the Year award, Willie, who loves math, science, and reading, appreciated being recognized.
"I felt grateful, and it was kind of awesome because out of 700 kids, it was me," said Willie.
Willie said he liked visiting the White House, and that speaking to the first lady was like speaking with family.
"One word to sum up our family is 'blessed,'" said Felicia. "We're very blessed by the award and all the things that we've gotten to experience because of it. I think it allowed us to build on goals. This award will benefit [Willie], not just now, but for years to come because it's solidifying his goals."
Despite what they've been through, Felicia maintains that her children are "busy being regular little kids."
And Willie, who favors the Philadelphia Eagles, knows just how he's going to spend that $500.
"I'm going to buy my sister a Nintendo, and I'm going to buy my mom something, but it's a secret."