By Joe LacdanApril 17, 2019
FORT MEADE, Md. -- Some days she could tame the pain long enough to make it through school.
Other times, the body aches grew so unbearable that Elisabeth McCallum-Polleys could not leave her bedroom. She would lay on the special heating pad she uses to stimulate blood flow and relieve the radiating pain in her rib cage.
The two metal rods inserted in her back would remind her that her life will never be the same as her childhood, when she spent summers joyously tumbling in her mother's yard in Missouri. She can no longer engage in strenuous physical activity or play a violin.
Having to quit the things she loved could have sent her into depression. Few would blame her if she chose to retreat inward or become angry at her terrible twist of fate.
But Elisabeth wasn't built that way. Elisabeth has weathered more challenges than most 16-year-olds.
Like she had done so many times before, she found a way to reboot her life. Instead of succumbing to her suffering, she helped others with theirs.
One day she could be serving food to some of Detroit's 8,000 homeless or bringing blankets to patients at a children's hospital. Another she could be voluntarily cleaning trash by the roadside in one of city's pothole-filled streets. She could be found tending to an injured squirrel at the local animal shelter.
That dedication to the service of others helped earn Elisabeth the 2019 Army Military Child of the Year award from Operation Homefront.
"She thinks about others before she thinks of herself," said her mother, Maj. Tara McCallum, who serves as a military legal advisor for units within the Detroit Arsenal.
When Soldiers change duty assignments, military children must weather a momentous shift in their lives.
According to the American Association of School Administrators, military children must move three times more often than the average American family. Some military children suffer psychosocial behaviors such as frequent crying and anxiousness.
They must leave behind their sports teams, their favorite teachers and schools. Sometimes they leave behind best friends. Elisabeth has moved six times in her 16 years.
HER PLACE IN THE SUN
"Everything good came from Hawaii," Elisabeth would tell her mother.
She spent her pivotal preteen years on the southern metropolitan side of Oahu while her mother served at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
There she enjoyed running along Honolulu's shores or she'd travel with her mother to the north side of the island to Oahu's North Shore. She'd play Beethoven's 5th on her violin in the one-story wooden house she shared with her mother on Honolulu's west side.
At age 11, she'd surf the ocean for hours. She loved the feeling of the water rushing around her surfboard and the cool waves splashing on her skin.
"I always thought the water spoke to me," McCallum said. "That's a weird thing to say. But the ocean was my happy place."
She had just been named the Moanalua Middle School's team captain of her cheerleading squad. She played lead violin for the local youth orchestra at her school.
Born in Vincenza Italy, where her mother served as a trial counsel prosecutor for the Army, she moved with her mother to places like Charlottesville, Virginia and the Ozarks of Missouri. She had grown up being more accepting of others, knowing that she would like other children to accept her.
But Hawaii would be different. There, Elisabeth would experience a wealth of cultures she had not seen. She attended classes with students of different ethnicities, including native Hawaiians, Polynesians, Filipinos and Japanese Americans. They'd welcome her into their homes as they would their own family members.
For a young girl who had grown up without a dad or siblings, Honolulu felt like home, a place for her to grow and be accepted.
"I felt like I belonged there," she said.
Then one night over dinner in 2015, her mother told her the devastating news. She had been reassigned to serve as a military legal adviser for the command judge advocate for a tactical control unit in Detroit. They would have leave behind Hawaii, and its swaying palms and incandescent city lights. She would be forced to leave behind her friends, the cheerleading squad and her coveted spot on her school's chamber orchestra.
"Everything collapsed on her," her mother said.
Elisabeth reluctantly agreed to move with her mother to Macomb, Michigan, about 30 miles north of Detroit.
But as soon as they arrived that July she shuttered herself inside her bedroom, sitting in the dark. For more than four months, she rarely went out and her appetite shrunk.
"I was in a depressed state," Elisabeth said. "I wouldn't get out of bed. I wouldn't eat."
Worried about her daughter, her mother offered her the opportunity to move back to Honolulu to live with a family friend.
"I couldn't get her to sleep," McCallum said. "She did not want to assimilate to Michigan at all."
Elisabeth considered her mother's offer to leave, but she had been doing well academically and she had slowly begun to make friends. And most importantly she didn't want to be separated from her mom again.
In 2011, at age 8, she had said goodbye to her mother for 15 months, when McCallum deployed to Kabul in a dangerous region of Afghanistan. Her grandparents moved into their daughter's house in Waynesville, Missouri.
Elisabeth had heard a family friend, Sgt. 1st Class John D. Morton had fallen victim to enemy fire while deployed in Afghanistan. She worried that her mother could suffer the same fate.
"I was so scared," she said. "And it was really hard because I'm here growing up … and my mom's not there."
McCallum deployed to a hostile region of Afghanistan and at times could only manage the occasional text "I love you."
Elisabeth remembered her mom not being there to help her with her spelling and her homework. She wasn't there to braid her hair. She realized she had no choice at all, she would stay in Michigan.
After her move from Hawaii she learned her middle school had already selected their cheerleading team. And she arrived too late to earn a spot in her school's orchestra.
"That was the lowest part of my life," she said. "No military child should think that they're alone, because they're not. There are millions of kids out there that are going through the same thing."
Months before her freshman year at L'Anse Creuse High School North she noticed some odd abnormalities. While practicing for beauty pageants, her mom had commented that her posture didn't seem quite right. One of her shoulders appeared to tilt to one side. She also noticed instead of growing, she had gotten shorter. She had been nearly 5-feet-5-inches, but now stood less than 5-2.
But she didn't learn the root of the problem until she suffered an allergic reaction from consuming shellfish in 2016.
Elisabeth's mother rushed her to the emergency room, where doctors found an abnormality in her spine, a curve that shouldn't be curved. They learned she had a severe case of scoliosis when the spine curves sideways. The ailment affects normal physical activity and posture.
Life had thrown another obstacle Elisabeth's way.
In the months before her diagnosis, she had suffered from startling symptoms. She struggled to maintain her posture and keep her shoulders even. She had wincing aches in her abdomen. Doctors initially told her she was just going through growing pains.
She underwent scoliosis surgery in March 2017 at Detroit's Children's Hospital of Michigan. Her classmates Kierra Ayres and Aaliyah McIntosh brought her balloons and food during her recovery.
Doctors told her she could no longer engage in heavy physical activity, nor could she continue playing her violin. She had to walk away from cheerleading and practicing archery.
With no other adult role model in her life, she had clung to mother. McCallum had always patiently supported her daughter's activities, including when she played on a boys basketball team in Missouri. Her mother also drove her across the state for gymnastics practices.
Once, during their move to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Elisabeth injured her throat while doing a cartwheel. Somehow, her baton had lodged into her throat and she began bleeding. Her mother drove her to the hospital.
She has her mother's piercing eyes and the same curved cheek bones. Friends would say, despite the 27-year age difference, they could almost be twins. While she cherished her time with her mother, in her quiet moments, Elisabeth said, she would wonder about her dad.
Elisabeth's father, a retired veteran, has not been a part of her life since her infancy. Still reeling from difficult memories, Elisabeth suffered silently. "I always thought that he didn't want me," she said.
If Mr. Polleys had spent more time with Elisabeth he would see he had a daughter with a bright smile, a girl who loves unicorns, listening to classical music and surfing under the Hawaiian sun; a daughter who welcomes people of different backgrounds and cultures; -- a daughter who wanted his love.
But Mr. Polleys never paid her a visit, never took her to gymnastics practice --, never taught her how to shoot a basketball. He didn't drive her to her first homecoming dance and didn't beam from the rafters at her eighth- grade graduation.
"I'll see pictures of him when he held me when I as a baby," Elisabeth said. "And I'll just cry, wishing he was still holding me."
"It's okay. I mean, it's not okay. But I'm strong because of it. It's made me more independent and … more understanding of people."
Her mother's two-story suburban home in northeastern Michigan is decorated with photos, of Elisabeth and her mother: photos of her at beauty pageants, photos of her standing proudly with her mother at cheerleading competitions and gymnastics competitions.
Elisabeth still puts forward a brave face when she sees her friends talking with their fathers or embracing them.
"(Not having a father) kind of helped me through life; to understand people," Elisabeth said. "There might not always be an answer to something, but you just have to understand and be okay with someone."
She takes comfort in how close she and her mother became, how close she grew with her grandparents during her mother's 15-month deployment to Afghanistan.
She sometimes pretends she has a father in her life, but that notion could evaporate in an instant. Her father, a retired Army veteran, has not been an active part of Elisabeth's life since her infancy.
She visited her father at his home in Georgia once in 2013 after not seeing him for 10 years. She visited him again this past Christmas.
The difficult experiences of her childhood could have made her angry or bitter. Instead Elisabeth became more patient, and more understanding of others. She doesn't snap to anger, but emphasizes with others when mentoring incoming freshmen or spending time with the elderly.
The 16-year-old junior, who posted a 3.9 GPA and ranks in the top 30 of her class, hopes to study acting or law in college.
Today, she serves as a leader in Job's Daughters, a Free Mason youth group. She has earned the distinction of being named "State Sweetheart" or honorary leader of the male youth group, Michigan DeMolay.
"The girls all really like her as a person," said Terri Bower, Grand Guardian of jurisdiction of Michigan's Job's Daughters. , "because she doesn't discriminate against anyone for any reason … she's very accepting of everyone."
Her back pains are no longer as severe, though she admits she still has bad days. During her volunteer work, where she has logged more than 200 hours, she sits when she can and takes breaks when she can.
She tries to spread the message to other military children: that they are not alone.
"We have to bounce back from hard times," Elisabeth said. "We have to stay strong from it. Like moving or losing a family member, like our parents in war, we have to sacrifice and watch them go to war. So you don't know if they're going to come home and we have to stay strong."
Elisabeth certainly has.
(Editor's note: The Military Child of the Year Award Gala will be in Arlington, Virginia, April 18.)