By Devon L. SuitsApril 24, 2018
ARLINGTON, Va. -- On the eve of the 2018 Operation Homefront military child of the year gala -- an event created to recognize the accomplishments of seven outstanding military kids -- Rebekah Paxton was overwhelmed with emotion as a result of her father's absence.
Just a week prior to the Thursday event, Paxton, this year's Army recipient, was hard at work. Around then, her uncle came in with some horrible news. Rebekah's father had tried to take his own life and was in a hospital on life support.
"It took 20 minutes to get a pulse," said the 17-year-old homeschooled high school senior. "I immediately left [work] and purchased a ticket to San Antonio, Texas, for the next morning. It was unreal and my family was in complete shock."
Her father never recovered.
SUPPORTING THE FAMILY
About eight years ago, Maj. Jason Paxton sustained traumatic brain injuries in Iraq while serving as a combat medic with the 82nd Airborne Division. Rebekah's father was medically retired after 19 years of service with a TBI and post-traumatic stress and when he returned home, he was never the same again, Rebekah said.
"When [my father] was in college he was studying music and his professors actually said he was borderline genius. He decided to join the military to support his family and put his family first verses pursuing music which was something he loved to do," Rebekah said. "My dad dedicated his life to his country. He saved many lives overseas [and] I know his job was difficult on him mentally."
The TBI dramatically changed the life of Maj. Paxton. But it also changed the life of young Rebekah as well.
"Up until 8 years old I had an amazing childhood," she said. "My parents were the ideal ones. I was very much daddy's little girl. He always brought me home Barbies and favored me over my brothers. When he came back he was different, and there was no more 'daddy's little girl.' We were a military unit and I wasn't allowed to have friends, sleepovers etc. I guess I kind of missed out on adolescent things because I had to hold the parental role so long."
Taking over the role as the de facto third parent, Rebekah was forced to grow up quickly. She would spend most of her mornings preparing her younger siblings for school, while her evenings were filled by her brother and sister's extracurricular activities.
Aside from taking care of her siblings, Rebekah was forced to watch her father slowly deteriorate.
Her father became very controlling and often times angry. Even worse, he turned to substance abuse and pain medication to cope with his medical and mental issues, Rebekah said. At times, Rebekah would struggle to lift her father into bed after finding him passed out on the floor.
Throughout everything, Rebekah still maintained a positive attitude in hopes of creating a better future.
Rebekah dedicated more than 700 volunteer hours at various organizations, to include 100 hours spent working with children at a local dance studio. If that weren't enough, Rebekah also helped watch over a special needs child twice a week.
Active in her church community, Rebekah volunteered to support vacation Bible school sessions at five different churches over the course of six years. She was a member of the Girl Scouts of America and also supported fundraising efforts for the Future Farmers of America.
"Lately, I've learned how precious life is and how much that there is that you can do in life," she said. "Over the past four years I think I've accomplished a lot of things. I think as long as you believe in yourself and you just keep that drive going on, you can accomplish anything. I know a lot of people in life take their hardships and just sit on it and they do nothing and they go nowhere. I think if you just focus on the positives in life, then you truly will have a successful outcome."
Her father's life and his recent passing have inspired Rebekah to pursue a degree in neurosurgery in college. She said she hopes, one day, to develop the skills necessary to fight against the plights of TBI and PTSD.
"I lost my father after he came back from Iraq and my brother and sister never got the normal childhood that my two older siblings and I got," she said. "Watching my dad turn into a man that I didn't even know, makes me want to develop more in the [neuroscience] medical community ... so I can help prevent veterans and civilians from passing the same way my father did."
Although Rebekah says she is honored to be the Army child of the year, she is grateful for all the support she received from the larger military child community.
"I didn't realize how many kids had fathers who had the same injures as me," Rebekah said. "I got messages from other kids explaining their stories. When I was going through some of toughest moments in life last year, I didn't think I would be able to come out of my situation alive.
"All I want to say is don't give up. You're going to get out of your situation and the sun will always rise. The best thing to do is focus on the [positive things] and keep moving forward," she said.