SAN ANTONIO (March 12, 2014) -- "Young Lives, BIG Stories" is the theme of the 2014 Month of the Military Child, which will be celebrated throughout April on U.S. Army installations.
One of the world's biggest self-professed Army brats, Shaquille O'Neal enjoyed a 19-year career as a "larger than life" character in the NBA.
It did not hurt that O'Neal entered the NBA standing 7-feet, 1-inches tall and weighing 301 pounds, yet he considers Army upbringing the key to his success.
"It all started here on this Army base," O'Neal said March 7 when Cole High School retired his jersey, No. 33, on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
"A lot of people ask me how do you do it, how do you stay sane with all the things that are going on? It's the military life. Military life, and I wouldn't have had it no other way."
Since 1986, Army installations around the world have recognized the sacrifices and applauded the courage of military children by celebrating the Month of the Military Child.
The Month of the Military Child typically creates awareness of the sacrifices military children make and the service they provide. This year's theme, "Young Lives, BIG Stories" also highlights the unique lifestyles and contributions military children make to our nation.
One would be hard pressed to find a bigger self-professed "Army brat" than O'Neal, who bounced from Newark, N.J., to Germany to Texas while growing up in an Army family.
Always the class clown, O'Neal credited his military upbringing for keeping him grounded. The four-time NBA champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP and 15-time NBA All-Star who won Olympic and World championships, appeared in more than a dozen movies, recorded more than five rap albums and had his own reality television shows, never outgrew his military roots.
"The Shaq character was created here," he said. "There was a time when I thought I was a little bit arrogant and the school and the post let me know that, 'Hey, you didn't do it by yourself.' They taught me to be humble, taught me to remain humble."
It is difficult for men and women in uniform to focus on military missions if they are worried about their children at home. Providing a safe, nurturing environment for military children creates a stronger more resilient fighting force.
The Month of the Military Child reinforces this concept, reminds the nation that the service members' children also serve, and gives communities an opportunity to share their gratitude for the service of military children during the "Young Lives, BIG Stories" campaign.
O'Neal learned the value of compassion for humanity as a teenager on Fort Sam Houston and exhibited it throughout his career.
"Things that I do in the community now as a professional player [turned television analyst], I was doing it on post -- me and my father and my team were passing out food to other houses and collecting toys from people who didn't want their toys and taking them up to the children's hospital," he said. "Everything that I've learned, I've learned from growing up in the military.
A military upbringing also helped make O'Neal color blind.
"Believe it or not, when he first brought me here, I hated him for it," Shaquille said of his late stepfather, Army Reserve Sgt. Philip A. Harrison, who recently passed away. "I know hate is a strong word, but growing up in Newark, New Jersey, where it's predominantly all African-America, and then we moved to West Germany, and I was like, 'What the [heck] is this?' And then when I came here and saw my first Spanish guy, I was like, 'I don't know where I'm at.'"
The first Spanish man O'Neal ever met, however, wound up clearing the gym so the youngster could get extra practice time.
"He saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself," O'Neal said.
Asked if he felt exceptionally fortunate to have become such a rich man from such a modest childhood, O'Neal replied: "It makes me appreciate it more because I was rich back then, too. I was mentally rich. The only thing money does for me is give me toys I don't need."
O'Neal shared his secret to success with the military kids at Robert G. Cole High School on the day they retired his jersey.
"It's just all about cultivating your dream, loving your dream, and just following your dream," O'Neal said. "This was the place where I cultivated my dreams. It all started here on the little Army base at Fort Sam Houston."
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Preschool children through high school seniors are invited to share their story about what it means to be a military child with photos, words, drawings or videos in the Army MWR-sponsored "Young Lives, BIG Stories" contest. Prizes will be awarded to an overall winner and the top entries in each category. For more details, visit http://www.armymwr.com/momc-big-stories.aspx.