FORT RUCKER, Ala.--Two teenagers value their military Families so much they penned essays describing how they help keep them Army Strong.

Dylan Rathburn, 13, and Eric Vicente, 16, stood before their Families, friends, Soldiers and the Fort Rucker community to read their essays during "A Salute to Military Families" Saturday at Howze Field.

Rathburn and Vicente recounted in their "Why My Family is Army Strong" essays how, through the good and bad times, deployments and other life-altering events, members of their Army Families supported one another to keep going.

To kick off Military Family Month, the Fort Rucker command also recognized 11 of its outstanding Families during the event.

"(Military Families) are near and dear to us, and we love them at Fort Rucker," said Army Community Service (ACS) Information, Referral and Follow up Program Manager Beth Arnold. "We have so many Families at Fort Rucker who have multiple deployments, who have spent time away from their Families. They work within their chapels. They work within their youth groups. They work coaching youth sports. They volunteer for Army Community Service, Red Cross, community organizations (and more). They're dedicated, hard working and (they) want to spend time improving the quality of life for all military Families."

Each of the 11 Families received certificates of appreciation and gift bags. Rathburn and Vicente each received $50 savings bonds, gift bags and certificates of appreciation.

Rathburn spent a week drafting the words to recognize his Family and kept it secret from his parents until his presentation Saturday.

"This is the first time I've written an essay of this kind. They cried and they appreciated that I wrote about (them)," Rathburn, an eighth grader who attends Dauphin Junior High School in Enterprise, said.

When Rathburn wrote the essay, his mom, Stephanie Onorato, was on bed rest due to pregnancy complications. On Saturday, his brother, Rocco, was four days old.

"It's amazing to find out what children think when they're going through hard times," Stephanie said. "His stepfather, before he left, spent a lot of time with him mentoring him and obviously it shows in Dylan. We're touched by what he did and very honored to have him as a son."

Rathburn's stepfather, Sgt. Pasquale Onorato Jr., or "P.J.," an air traffic controller with 1-58th Airfield Operations Battalion, was home from Iraq on rest and relaxation to witness the birth of his son and his stepson's words of appreciation.

"(I told him) how the military works and tried to make it make sense to him so if he has to help out he can," Onorato said. "Just the fact that he took the time to write it on his own shows he cares about me and the Family."

Dylan's sister, Kayla Rathburn, 11, said her brother's essay was terrific.

"He got it right on what (my Family's) been through," she said. "As brother and sister, we've grown closer through this. He's inspired me to want to do this when I'm old enough."
Rathburn's grandmother, Nancy McCoy of Enterprise, orchestrated her grandson's surprise to his Family.

"They've been through so much with P.J. deploying and my daughter having a bad pregnancy," McCoy said. "With all of them coming together (this was a) great family reunion surprise. I was absolutely beaming with pride watching my grandson read his essay."

McCoy wasn't the only grandparent listening to Rathburn's essay Saturday. Rathburn's step-grandparents, Pasquale and Melinda Onorato from Williamstown, Mass., also witnessed the event.
Vicente's Family - stepfather, Capt. Raymond Santiago, A Co., 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment commander, mom, Betzy, and brother, Raymond, 5 - shared hugs all around after he read his essay Saturday.

"I had flashbacks when I read it," said the junior who attends Enterprise High School. "I remember since we've started the Army life - the good and bad times. The (Army has) provided us a good life. The Army has made me grow as a person and a student. I wanted to thank my Family for all I've been through. (If it wasn't for the military lifestyle) I would just be another teenager who doesn't like (his) parents and hates school."

Vicente and his Family stayed at home in Guayama, Puerto Rico, while Santiago served a year in Korea in 2003, and joined him there the following year.

"It reminded me of the hard times we went through when I was in Korea and he took care of the Family," Santiago said. "(I'm) proud of all the hard work he's done. He needs very little supervision."

Vicente told his mom he was going to read his essay, which he wrote in one day.
"I wanted him to read it so all the other kids understand the importance of the support between them and their Families," Betzy said. "He was my support and he had to help me. When he wrote that, he remembered all the times he was my support."