Fionnuala Mahoney kept her secret hidden from her mother, her teachers and the other children at school.She sat in the back of the class with her shoulders slumped and her face covered by her long, brown hair, hoping to escape her teacher's gaze.When finally asked to read a passage from her textbook, she’d remember how her mom had done it the night before. Pretending to read, she’d recite it in class, word for word, with her finger tracing the page. She kept the secret for as long as she could, fooling her peers and teachers and progressed from kindergarten through first grade.While attending second grade her teacher finally noticed.“She didn't want people to know,” her mother Shari said. “I guess … she felt embarrassed or ashamed that she wasn't reading and she didn't know how to verbalize that.”Her mother took her to a special learning teacher who evaluated Fionnuala, finding that she could not read because she had dyslexia.Children with dyslexia learn differently from other students, responding better to visual cues and multi-sensory instruction. They often possess normal intelligence but struggle to make the association between spoken language and the symbolism of letters. The condition impacts the part of the brain responsible for interpreting words and decoding, and dyslexic students often fall behind their peers in reading comprehension and English.John Stein, emeritus professor at Oxford University, has postured that dyslexia can be a blessing, spawning skills others don’t possess. He has argued people with dyslexia often go on to excel in creative fields such as architecture and art.According to the Mayo Clinic, dyslexia has no known cure and continues to impact those diagnosed into adulthood.Finn’s older brother began reading before the age of 3. That weighed upon Finn’s mind. She struggled to keep pace with her classmates and her grades suffered. “I just thought I wasn’t as smart as anyone else,” she said.Father can’t always helpWorking long hours in the service of others, Capt. Howard Mahoney, an Army surgeon, missed much of his children’s childhoods. Medical school and residency meant he could not always help with many of Finn’s early struggles as she tried to overcome dyslexia.“She’d come to me, sometimes, she’d be crying,” he said. “She’d be like, ‘I don’t understand.’”Today Finn remains quiet and soft-spoken, but that façade masks a giving personality.She volunteers at the Lamb Center in Fairfax, Virginia, where the 18-year-old hands clean clothes and soap to veterans and homeless people. She sits with grieving parents of Soldiers who have recently passed in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.That selflessness began in her own household. The Operation Homefront 2019 Army Military Child of the Year ® acts as caretaker of her 81-year-old grandmother, Joan Boibeaux, who suffers from dementia and she aids her father, a wounded warrior, in his rehabilitation.Girl who perseveresHoward and Shari decided to call their youngest daughter Fionnuala, an old Irish name that meant “white shoulders,” and one who “perseveres.” According to Irish lore, Fionnuala was one of four children of Lir, an Irish god of the sea. Her jealous stepmother cast a spell, turning her into a swan for 900 years.Like the Fionnuala of old, Finn endured difficulties early in her life, as she spent much of her childhood without her dad, as duty called for extended hours in emergency care and later two years an ocean away in Germany.Finn slowly would begin to emerge from her shell by the time she reached her middle school years at McLean. Those years coincided with the most difficult in her family’s lives. Her father suffered a training accident in Germany, their mother told them.He would begin rehabilitation that continues to this day.Torn apart The nightmares would come without warning. They crept into his mind as he slept in his family's two-story home just outside of Washington, D.C.In his dreams, Howard would find himself strapped to a gurney with one of his limbs separated from his body, like the patients he had treated. He’d wake in the early hours of the morning screaming, trembling from the haunting images.Howard had served as an Army surgeon at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Georgia Avenue during the height of the Iraq surge. He had seen it all working in orthopedic trauma: Soldiers who suffered burns in Iraq. Soldiers who needed their limbs removed. Soldiers in immense pain who knew their lives had forever been shaken by the war.And they kept coming. Dozens, maybe hundreds of patients he treated, working around the clock performing amputations, treating torn muscles and fractures while battling invasive fungal infections. A seven-day work week often became the norm. Sometimes, the patients would die on the operating table.“I can’t think of what got me through that time,” he said. “You try to keep your head down.”He'd rarely see his children, his two boys who shared his love of military service, and his youngest child Fionnuala, a girl who emulated her father’s quiet demeanor and had his dark brown locks.When Howard graduated from Tufts University School of Medicine in 2001, he proudly took the podium to receive his White Coat while cradling newborn Finn in his arms.As a toddler, little Finn would climb aboard her father’s back, and with a wide grin, he would carry her around the family’s living room and up the stairs to her bedroom. He’d take his children to the movies when he could. When the family still lived in New Hampshire, he’d drive them to the ocean, where’d he’d teach his children to swim in the Atlantic’s waters.But those times soon became scarce.The family packed their belongings and moved to Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the Army assigned Howard as an emergency care physician.There Howard often logged 18-hour work days. He’d leave the family’s house before the sun rose and often did not return until his children had fallen asleep.“Sometimes he’d say he just came home to look at us,” his wife said.He would stand at the door of his children’s bedrooms, watching them sleep. Sometimes, he’d kiss them goodnight.“It was tough not getting to spend as much time with him as I used to,” Finn said.The limited time with his children weighed heavily upon him.His drive to serve others had pushed him to endure the long hours. As a graduate student attending Cornell University, he had served as an emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighter. He saw the impact the job made on the Ithaca, New York, community and wanted to continue serving others on a larger scale after graduating from medical school.He later commissioned into the Army as a general surgeon and eventually deployed to Germany in 2012, where he began training as a flight surgeon. A training accident, however, would cut his military career short.The horrific memory still lingers. He received a reassignment to train as an Army flight doctor at Ansbach Army Base in central Germany. In 2013, he was riding on a Humvee during an exercise when it accidentally rolled over. The impact threw him from his seat inside the vehicle.The effects of the accident left his jaw broken and his teeth collapsed. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury. The jarring accident shook him so profoundly, to this day he declines to talk about the details.He initially received treatment for his wounds while in Germany, as fellow surgeons had to reconstruct his jaw.He not only had to live in the devastating aftermath of his injuries, he exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder. For two years he spent time with other wounded vets in the Army’s warrior transition unit near the shores of the Potomac at Fort Belvoir. Together they worked on physical rehabilitation and the slow, difficult transition to recovery.Adding to Howard’s troubles, his roommate at Belvoir, an Army staff sergeant who had broken his arm in Iraq, committed suicide after he shot himself inside his truck.When Howard returned to Bethesda, his family found him broken. He retreated to the basement of his family’s house, often remaining there for days. He suffered from PTSD and spoke even less to his children.“There's a certain, I don't wanna say regret, but … maybe a little bit of shame for feeling the way you do,” he said. “At the same time you’re dealing with a lot of stuff that personify at times: bursts of anger bursts of rage … long periods of depression.”He remained haunted by the accident, and by the hundreds of troops he had treated on the operating table.The Army finally medically retired him in 2016, more than two years after the rollover injury.He’d lost so much time with the kids.“It weighed on you,” Howard said. “I never felt like I could ever catch up.”Finn was the soft-spoken daughter who had grown up in the shadow of her academically accomplished brothers, Howard Jr. and Cormac. Howard Jr. attends the U.S. Military Academy, while Cormac studies at Cornell. She had begun to get better grades and overcome her lifelong hurdles. Now she would help her father overcome his.“He needed me,” Finn said. “Because he spent a lot of his time alone and by himself.”A taste of ‘normal’In the summer of 2016, the family returned to their beach house on the New England shoreline. A hurricane had pounded North Hampton, New Hampshire, causing extensive damage to the house’s infrastructure.Howard had done simple home repairs before, but had never undertaken a home restoration project as extensive as this one.He had to teach himself new skills; learning how to remove water damage, perform light demolition, flooring, wiring and repainting.He likened home restoration to working in the operating table, learning the anatomy of a house’s infrastructure. Plumbing became intestinal and electrical wiring became nerves.Howard found the labors therapeutic, as he used many of the same skills he utilized as a surgeon.And he had finally bonded with his children in a way he had not since their childhood. Together they re-shingled the roof, painted the house and put in new tiles.Dad became Dad again.Like her father, Finn enjoyed hard work and immersing herself in a project. The family has returned to the home each summer since.“It was hard to get the connection that we used to have,” Finn said. “When we were working on the house, it brought us together again.”Making up lost timeHoward would also help his daughter in her schoolwork. Fionnuala shared her father’s interest in science and medicine. He’d tutor her, helping with her science and chemistry homework. He’d help her with her pronunciation of Russian words.They’d study at the family dining table, where father and daughter bonded again like they hadn’t in years.Finn had just begun her freshman year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda when the soft-spoken teen began to break her silence, joining the school’s gymnastics and cheerleading teams. She surprised many, making the Vikings’ varsity cheer squad in each of her four years.  Unafraid, she took on the sport’s most dangerous role, the flyer, and joyously soared through the air during football and basketball games.The girl who once feared the gaze of her peers became fearless.“She’s always persevered,” Howard said. “She’ll be the one who’ll take on (something) and say ‘I can do it.’”She replaced the B’s and C’s she received in elementary school with mostly A’s at WWHS, qualifying for advanced placement courses the past two years.Now with the cash award earned from winning Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year, she will attend Cornell following in the footsteps of older brother Cormac and her father. She hopes to pursue a career as a dietician, or one in forensic science.Even in her elementary school years, tests revealed Finn possessed high intelligence, even though she had struggled with her grades.In her senior year at WWHS, Finn has undertaken graduate-level research with the National Institute of Health as she has worked with developing a Ketogenic diet to suppress tremors in patients who have Parkinson’s disease.Last month, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mahoneys redirected the Ketogenic research toward boosting the immune system of Coronavirus patients and acute respiratory distress syndrome sufferers. She and her father share their research with scientists across the globe through teleconferencing.She also teaches wounded warriors to kayak along the Potomac. Many of the veterans suffer from immobility or restricted movement. For a few fleeting moments, as they paddle along the river, they forget their limitations, and remember life before their injuries. “I'd say it gave them freedom from their injuries,” Finn said.When Howard works on the family’s New Hampshire home, or helps Finn with her schoolwork, the former surgeon said he can rekindle a semblance of normal life.The girl who didn’t let a learning disability stop her from reaching her academic potential.“She found that inner strength,” her father said.And Fionnuala helped Dad find his.Related linksArmy.mil: FamiliesOperation Homefront Military Child of the YearA look back: 2019 Military Child of the YearArmy.mil: Worldwide NewsArmy News ServiceArmy News Service ArchivesFollow Joe Lacdan on TWITTER