WASHINGTON, April 22, 2009 - An Army family member has earned $5,000, a laptop computer and a trip to the nation's capital as the first Military Child Award winner for a national troop-support organization.
Brittany Wallace, 17, will receive her award from Texas-based Operation Homefront at a ceremony here April 29.
Wallace was among 450 military children from 8 to 18 who competed for the award. Jennifer Cernoch, Operation Homefront's Texas chapter president, nominated the San Antonio teenager.
"I've seen the actual, genuine empathy that Brittany has, not only for her own family, but also for other wounded warrior families, especially their kids," Cernoch said. "She has been such an inspiration to the kids in helping them cope with their fathers' injuries. From her babysitting to just being there, she's become a wonderful role model."
Operation Homefront members voted online for three finalists -- Wallace, Adam Soisson of South Bend, Ind., and Mollie Danel of Camp Lejeune, N.C. -- and a panel of judges selected one for the top award.
"Our selection criteria included the child's circumstances, hardships, challenges overcome, community activities and the example he or she sets for others," Kerry McGinley, associate editor for Operation Homefront, said. "We were really moved by Brittany's giving nature, her commitment to her family as well as other wounded warrior families, and all that she's accomplished despite the challenges of her situation."
Wallace's challenges began in 2007 when her father, Staff Sgt. Robert Henline, was the lone survivor of a roadside bomb in Iraq that burned 38 percent of his body and all but destroyed his left arm. Despite his life-changing injuries, the Soldier said, it was his daughter who fought the harder battle.
"She helped her mom a lot during our difficult time," Henline said. "She had a lot on her plate. She never complained, and never felt sorry for herself. She took over caring for her siblings. We were, and are, so proud of her."
Brittany was 15 when her mother, Connie, left her and her younger siblings, Skylar and McKenzie, with family in North Carolina so she could be at her husband's bedside in San Antonio. For three months, Wallace helped with meals and homework. Family members said she provided a sense of comfort and stability to her siblings.
Those three months were hard on everyone, the teenager recalled. She said she remembers wanting to talk to her mother longer than the brief chats they shared on the phone, but realized her mother was so stressed and drained by taking care of her father that anything longer than a few minutes would set loose the emotions she worked so hard to keep in check. Wallace said she learned to follow her mother's example for the sake of her siblings.
"It was hard with my mom being gone," she said. "My sister and brother looked up to me a lot. Other family members were there for us and were very helpful, but they didn't really know our routine. It was up to me to keep that routine for them. I didn't [worry about] mine. They needed me, and I was there for them. My priorities changed. My family came first."
Those strong qualities, McGinley said, gave Wallace the edge over the other two finalists.
"We consider Brittany as an exceptional young lady who is determined to make the most and the best of her circumstances," McGinley said. "It was really inspiring to talk to her -- to hear her describe her father's injuries as a blessing, because it has brought her family closer."
Lockheed Martin Corp. sponsored the Military Child Award as a way to honor and "recognize the extraordinary efforts of our military kids," said Jim Knotts of Lockheed Martin, who conceived the idea.
"While our country asks for great sacrifices from our men and women in uniform, we also ask for great sacrifices from our military families, especially the kids," Knotts said. "We need a strong military, and our military members need strong families."