By Don WagnerApril 7, 2017
Henderson Heussner has lived in eight states in 10 years. He has overcome injuries to be a successful high school athlete; he has helped take care of his siblings during his father's absences and he's spent hundreds of hours volunteering as a tutor for at-risk youth.
Heussner was chosen as the Operation Homefront Army 2017 Military Child of the Year. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allen presented the award Thursday evening at an event in Arlington, Va.
Heussner, 18, plans to attend Yale University this fall and major in economics. He said that he will seek a commission in the Army upon graduation because he wants to serve his country.
SELFLESS COMMUNITY SERVICE
Since 2016, Heussner has spent 240 volunteer hours as a tutor and mentor for at-risk children and teens at the nonprofit organization, New Horizons, which serves Lee and Collier counties in Southwest Florida. The organization is dedicated to helping children and teens who are growing up in poverty.
He was also a participant in West Point's week-long Summer Leadership Experience in which he learned leadership skills.
Heussner has been a youth group leader, sports camp counselor and Sunday school teacher at Summit Church in Fort Myers since 2103, and serves as a sports camp counselor teaching, coaching, and mentoring students ages 8-16. He assumed a teaching and leadership role at his church as well.
In 2016, Heussner collected, packaged and shipped more than 500 boxes to deployed service members through the Treats for the Troops program.
In 2008, he worked with the Equipment for Kids program, distributing baseball equipment to children in the Dominican Republic. In 2006, he collected and distributed school supplies for children in Honduras.
He finds time to serve as the pitcher on his high school baseball team and has participated in travel baseball programs all over the country. In 2010-2013, he volunteered with Challenger Little League at Fort Carson, Colorado, working with youth who had physical and mental challenges.
Heussner also has been a volunteer for the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, Florida, since 2013 and volunteers with Special Olympics in Fort Myers, helping plan, organize and encourage other students to support of the event.
He worked with the Army's family readiness group at Fort Hood and Fort Carson helping to set up events for children and ensuring the programs supported children and families of the units he was assigned.
Since 2013, he has also participated in fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy treatment and research.
"Being chosen for this Army award is a tremendous honor and a humbling responsibility," Heussner said. "It's an honor because I know that there are hundreds of kids doing tremendous things across the globe as scholars, athletes and volunteers and to be counted among them is more than I could have ever hoped for.
"It is also a responsibility as I represent them and all military kids as I interact with people who are all watching and drawing conclusions about what it means to be a child of a military family," Heussner added.
'MAN OF THE HOUSE'
The Estero High School senior is not waiting for the Army to teach him leadership skills and resiliency. He learned and demonstrated these skills "on the job" in helping manage his household, along with his mother, a special education teacher, when his father, Col. Todd Heussner, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 for nine months.
He is continuing to develop these skills. He and his family again are separated from their father. His father is serving as executive officer to the deputy commanding general of Army Materiel Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, several hundred miles away and can only come home for short visits.
While his father is away, Heussner stands in as "man of his house," seeing that family chores are completed and helping take care his brother Jeb, 16, and sister Emma, 21.
During his father's deployment, he also helped care for is terminally-ill grandfather who passed away from lung cancer in April 2014. He helped feed and move his grandfather.
"We have always joked that Henderson is a 40-year-old man locked in a boy's body," Linda Heussner said. "He was aware of the role of the man of the house at a very early age. When I'm having a bad day, he puts everything in perspective, he does chores and he always lightens tense situations with his sense of humor. He also sets a great example for his brother and sister."
Heussner said that being the "man of the house" while going to school, worrying about his father and his grandfather was a burden, but it served to strengthen his character and to mature him.
"It never occurred to me that most kids never have to worry about their fathers coming home from work until I moved to Florida, away from a military base, to be with my grandfather," Heussner said. "Sending your dad to war is something that we all did and it seemed normal."
Heussner had a physical challenge to overcome. In 2016, as a member of his high school varsity baseball team, he suffered two broken vertebrae during his sophomore year. He spent many hours rebuilding his strength, batting baseballs at his high school's baseball batting cage.
Although his physical issues have created obstacles, Heussner said that the biggest challenge he faces is his father's absence from home. "My dad is a tremendous influence and not having him home leaves a huge hole in our family," he said.
Heussner was born in Hawaii and has lived in Virginia, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida.
His parents prepared the family for his father's deployment with discussions around the table about why it's important, what it means and how to stay connected while deployed.
"We set goals and worked to achieve them during deployments so that we would be better at the end of the deployments," Heussner said.
Every day the first thing Heussner would do when he got home from school was check the mail box to read his dad's notes and stories. When able to call, his father would talk to him about the various lessons and how he could apply them in his life and at school.
According to Heussner, not everything about being a military child is tough.
"As a military child I have had the opportunity to live all over the country and to visit many other countries. This has given me a tremendous appreciation and perspective for our country and our citizens."
Heussner's advice to other military kids: the obstacles faced every day are opportunities to grow. Helping others when they are most challenged provides rewards that puts challenges in perspective and provides returns far greater than the input, he said.
"As a father and a Soldier, I always worried about the impact of my profession on my family," Col. Heussner said. "I never considered that they would take challenges and turn them into opportunities that have produced children who are strong leaders, capable of dealing with life's challenges in a way that inspires others. The fire they have been put through has forged a character of steel."
"Those experiences prepared me to face the future with my grandfather," Heussner said. "I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with him and to get to know him before he passed away. I know now why dad is the man he is today. Their examples established a model that values hard work, selfless service as well as honor and integrity."
Operation Homefront recognizes six outstanding young people ages 8 to 18 each year, from each branch of the armed forces, for their scholarship, volunteerism, leadership, extracurricular involvement, while facing the challenges of military family life.