CAMP ZAMA, Japan — A few years ago, Maribel Sikes went with her family to see a smaller, touring replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall as it made its way to Georgia.
Maribel, 15, whose family now lives at Camp Zama, recalled searching for people to add to her prayer list from the names of more than 58,000 American service members etched into the memorial.
As she wrote down names, one of the veterans traveling with the wall approached her and asked if she could remember his best friend, U.S. Navy Capt. Frank Fullerton, an A-4F Skyhawk pilot who never returned from a mission over North Vietnam.
With tears in her eyes, Maribel agreed and penned his name at the top of her list. The moment touched her so much that she later recounted the story for an audio essay contest held by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.
Her essay on why veterans were important, which was recorded as a four-minute audio clip, won the Pacific areas level of VFW’s “Voice of Democracy” contest. As a result, she received $1,700 in scholarships and a trip to Washington, D.C., where she was honored at the VFW legislative conference earlier this month.
“Veterans have always been my passion since I was a little girl,” she said last week. “I love being around them and telling others their story.”
Maribel said the values that veterans live by have also encouraged her to be more altruistic.
“Veterans are incredible role models, because they serve selflessly,” she said. “They don’t care about having themselves on a prayer list, [for instance], but the names of their battle buddies.”
Maribel, a ninth grader who attends school at home, frequently uses her free time to volunteer in the community.
The teenager sometimes lends a hand at the chapel here and hopes to soon volunteer for the Red Cross and USO, as well as do an internship this summer. She currently does much of her volunteering at the post library, where she coordinates all the preschool story times and other events.
"I like serving my community,” she said. “It gives me a satisfied feeling knowing that others have been helped through my actions.”
Her father, Lt. Col. Nicholas Sikes, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion commander, said his daughter constantly seeks opportunities to serve others while learning how to improve her abilities to better help them.
“Maribel is extremely compassionate, and when she sees a need she will gladly stop what she is doing to attempt to meet that need,” he said. “She is patient and organized, which lets her easily work with children and gives her a heart to help veterans as well.”
As the oldest of five children, Maribel is a “natural organizer” who can juggle multiple tasks, according to her mother, Audrey.
“She likes to encourage people to read, because she is so passionate about it,” Audrey said of her daughter’s volunteer work, adding the teenager also plans to help with the library’s summer reading program.
Audrey believed her daughter’s essay on veterans signified how her whole family feels toward them. The family loves America, she said, and her husband will often take time to chat with a veteran about their experiences.
“The kids know that when we come across any kind of veteran, he will stop and have conversations with them, particularly the older veterans, because he loves to hear their stories,” Audrey said. “So all of our kids have grown up with this passion for hearing veteran stories.”
Nicholas said he was very proud of what Maribel has been able to accomplish and for the young lady she is becoming.
“I think it is an incredible honor that the VFW recognized not only the effort she made in writing and saying her story, but the impact that it had on those who read it,” he said. “Her story talked about remembrance and about being a good friend, which are lessons that are pertinent to all of us.”
Nicholas traveled with his daughter during her trip to D.C., where Maribel and more than 50 other winners got to speak with VFW representatives from around the country.
Maribel also visited several museums, landmarks and memorials in the nation’s capital. One such memorial was the original polished, black granite wall that pays tribute to those who died in the Vietnam War – and the inspiration for her story.
As she walked along the memorial’s pathway, she sought out Fullerton’s name once again. And when she discovered the name etched in stone, she traced it onto a piece of paper as a gesture to keep his memory alive.
“That was super special to me, finding the name that I wrote my essay after,” she said. “It made me connect with him even more.”