Like Soldier, like daughter, Military Child of the Year aids others

By Joe Lacdan, Army News ServiceJune 10, 2024

Allison Candelario, the 2024 Operation Homefront Military Child of the year for the Army poses for photos with her father, now Sgt. Maj. Daniel Candelario.
Allison Candelario, the 2024 Operation Homefront Military Child of the year for the Army poses for photos with her father, now Sgt. Maj. Daniel Candelario. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photos) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON — On a January night in 2014, the Candelario family gathered in front of their television to watch the documentary “Tent City, U.S.A.”

The film followed the struggles of Nashville’s homeless and the city’s overwhelmed shelter system. Then-Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Candelario, a Soldier stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky asked his children how they would help solve the growing transient population issue.

“We have to clothe them Dad,” said his youngest child, Allison, 8 years old at the time. Startled by the maturity of his child's words, the Soldier followed his daughter's lead.

The next morning the family collected old pants, shirts and blankets and placed the items in boxes and bags to bring to the city’s needy.

Candelario would savor memories like these when he could. Time with his daughter and family grew scarce. Heavy demand for motor transport operators meant he had to leave home for multiple deployments and missions.

Candelario’s wife, Maria, said her husband could only be at home for four full years during Allison’s life. Shortly after Allison’s birth in December 2005, Candelario left for a year-long deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

He missed her first steps, first words, birthdays and holidays. When Allison reached first grade, Candelario deployed to Iraq again for a two-year mission. During that time the family moved to Florida to be closer to relatives.

“It’s definitely hard being away from the family,” Candelario said. “I believe there’s a balance there for contribution to our country and what we go through …

But Candelario remembered the solemn pledge he made as a Soldier. He paused. “It’s a sacrifice we all agreed to.”

At forward operating bases, the Soldier’s thoughts would often drift to his family and his daughter back in Florida, his youngest, his baby girl Allison. Allison looks like the spitting image of her father, sporting his curled, dark eyebrows and sharing the same rounded cheeks.

Allison Candelario, 18 is the Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year for the Army. Candelario recently graduated from Grafton High School in York County, Virginia. She was honored in a ceremony during the Military Child of the Year Gala in Arlington, Va.
Allison Candelario, 18 is the Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year for the Army. Candelario recently graduated from Grafton High School in York County, Virginia. She was honored in a ceremony during the Military Child of the Year Gala in Arlington, Va. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Candelario kept a photo of Allison during his deployments to the Middle East. In her early years, he used Skype calls to connect with her and his family.

Like many military children who weather constant change, Allison matured beyond her years. After thousands of hours of volunteer work since age 7, she possesses an innate concern for others. She’s led her debate teams and became a part-time forensic science specialist during her high school senior year. She shows empathy toward classmates, and the homeless she serves as a volunteer.

She learned to make new friends and connect with the community during each of the family’s seven moves. That perseverance helped earn Allison, 18, the 2024 Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year award for the Army in April.

A born leader
Allison Candelario, right, leads her school's forensics team during a competition in 2023.
Allison Candelario, right, leads her school's forensics team during a competition in 2023. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Daniel Candelario had seen more of the military life than most Soldiers, spending four years in the Marine Corps and the last two decades in the Army while deploying seven times. When the New York native joined the Army’s NCO ranks, he remembered his experience as a young corporal in the Corps.

Candelario allowed Soldiers to approach him with questions at any time. He made sure to let Soldiers know about career and educational opportunities. Candelario prioritized education himself, eventually earning two master’s degrees. He welcomed Soldiers into his own house by hosting dinners for his troops. He helped his Soldiers apply for the prestigious Sergeant Audie Murphy Award, given to NCOs that help Soldiers become battle ready.

However, each time Candelario deployed, he returned home different, forever changed by the war, his wife said.

“When Soldiers come back from the deployment, we do not know what they see, only they know what they see,” said Allison’s mother Maria.

Years of separation couldn’t shroud Candelario’s influence on his daughter. The donations to Nashville’s homeless began what would become nearly a decade of giving to others.

Like her father, she grew into a leader. Her classmates on the debate team and fellow Girl Scouts call her asking for advice, much like Soldiers formerly stationed at Fort Carson do with her father.

That leadership, Allison said could be traced to her preteen years and watching her dad lead Soldiers.

“He’s very headstrong,” Allison said. “Whenever he has a goal, he always accomplishes it. And that’s very inspiring to me.”

On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the wealth of cultures exposed Allison to more diverse groups of people including native Hawaiians and Japanese. Meanwhile her father’s unit at Schofield Barracks tasked the Soldier heavily, and he often had to work overtime.

Allison Candelario, fourth from right, poses for a picture with her mom, Maria, far left, her father, Daniel, far right, and her girl scout troop in Oahu, Hawaii.
Allison Candelario, fourth from right, poses for a picture with her mom, Maria, far left, her father, Daniel, far right, and her girl scout troop in Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo Credit: courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

The few free hours he had, he spent with Allison as Girl Scout troop leader. They hiked, climbed mountains and went camping. He even taught his daughter how to sew.

“They have a special bond that’s inseparable,” Allison’s mom, Maria said.

Candelario, a Boy Scout in his youth, delved deeper into his role as troop leader for Allison’s Girl Scout troop. He’d schedule meetings, guide their curriculum and offer advice.

Then, during one of Allison’s troop missions in 2016, she surprised her father.

The then-5th grader brainstormed a project to earn her Bronze Award, which gives scouts in 4th and 5th grades the opportunity to plan their own team community project while learning leadership skills. Allison decided that she and her troop would do something to help Honolulu’s rising homeless population.

Candelario began to draw an outline on the project when his daughter stopped him. She told her father that she wanted to be the one to do the planning and wanted her fellow scouts to share in the coordination.

Then Allison and her troop formulated their own schedule and compiled a list of items, toothbrushes, soaps and toiletries. They called the local Costco stores in Oahu and hotels in the Honolulu area.

“She said, ‘I want to take control, and I want the team to take control of how we do things,’” Candelario said. “It was amazing.”

They received millions of donated items even hosting a potluck where local residents could donate food to the homeless. Candelario said his daughter’s efforts for others began that winter night in Tennessee all those years ago.

“Everything she does, she does from her heart,” her mother, Maria said. “She doesn’t think twice. If anyone needs help, she’s there.”

Dealt a tough hand

In early 2020, while taking a routine physical at the Fort Eustis clinic, now 14-year-old Allison noticed a lump on her upper torso. Startled, Allison and her mom asked doctors at the Virginia installation if they should be concerned. The lump looked normal, her primary care doctor said, and assured Allison and her mother that the lump likely resulted from puberty.

After three months, the lump had swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Alarmed, Maria took her daughter back to the clinic. And once again, the physician assured Allison and her mother that they had nothing to worry about.

Allison and her mother disagreed.

“We were like ‘no, this is not normal,” Maria said. “This doesn’t grow out of the blue.”

With now Master Sgt. Candelario deployed overseas, and hospitals nationwide closing, stress sunk in, Allison said. Fortunately, the teen could lean on her mom, and the military community at Eustis.

Although admittedly a daddy’s girl, Allison calls her mother her best friend. During the long periods of separation from her Dad, she recalled how her mom would help her cope and remind her why her Dad left. “The longer he's away we kind of have had to re-learn each other,” Allison said.

Maria and her daughter travelled south from their home near Fort Eustis to Langley Air Force Base, where they met Air Force surgeon, Dr. Jeremy Simmons.

Simmons listened closely to Allison’s concerns. Simmons performed an ultrasound and test results from Baltimore’s John Hopkins hospital confirmed the family’s beliefs. The growth, he said, would likely become cancerous. She had contracted a Phyllodes tumor, a rare form of breast cancer.

Allison had two choices, have the lump and a part of her body removed, or endure painful chemotherapy.

“Whatever you do, I’m here for you,” Maria told her daughter. “We’re in this together, you’re not alone.”

Allison didn’t hesitate. She asked to have the tumor taken out so that she could get back to her life.

Her experience at Andrews shook Allison to her core. But the ordeal also left a lasting impact on her academic studies. Seeing the care provided by Dr. Simmons helped inspire Allison to pursue a career in medicine as a pediatric surgeon.

She has already begun taking pre-med courses part time at a Virginia Peninsula Community College while finishing her high school diploma. Allison now plans to study biochemistry at Virginia Tech University and then apply for medical school.

“[Dr. Simmons] heard me fully and he trusted my opinion,” she said. “And he … definitely advocated for me. So that kind of made me want to become that type of person that would advocate for their patients and listen to their patients.”

Allison volunteers to care for patients at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, in southern Virginia. There, she changed bedsheets and delivered meals to patients, while assisting nurses. Candelario said that he sees much of himself in his daughter.

“I just think it's rare, where you find a person who cares so much about somebody else,” Candelario said. “It's never about myself, it's about everybody else. I lead my family that way. And I lead my Soldiers that way … And I believe that stuck with her because it's never about her. It's about who she can help.”

A promise kept

The Candelario family poses for a photo at the 2024 Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year gala in Arlington, Va.
The Candelario family poses for a photo at the 2024 Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year gala in Arlington, Va. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

As Allison began her last semesters at Grafton High School in Yorktown, Virginia, her father once again had to leave for the entire school year for a mission in Kuwait. At this point the Soldier had missed Allison’s father-daughter dance, middle school graduation, high school debates and countless family movie nights.

Through the years as social media evolved, the burden of separation became easier. He could see his daughter as she grew through virtual media. But the physical separation still grated him, as he yet again had to miss his daughter’s final year of high school during the yearlong deployment.

The news that her dad would be able to attend the Military Child of the Year ceremony overwhelmed the family. But because of the uncertainty of mission demands, family members didn’t know fully if he could make the trip.

Then the night before the ceremony, Allison heard a knock on the door of her hotel room in Arlington.

She saw her father standing outside with one suitcase.

“Dad you’re home,” she said.

“Yes,” the Soldier replied. “Now go back to bed. I love you.” Candelario embraced his daughter quickly before she retreated into her room.

During the gala events the next day, the Soldier wearing his dress blues congratulated his daughter and posed for photos with his family.

The now-sergeant major, toughened by multiple years in combat and 26 in active duty broke down, overwhelmed with emotion during the ceremony.

“This time and age we have a lot of action overseas,” the Soldier said. “And for me to be able to take off some time to watch my daughter receive that award means the world.”

Candelario, at the time of this interview had travelled to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois for a conference and then returned to his unit, the 840th Transportation Battalion in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. But he received permission from his unit to see another milestone: his daughter’s Grafton high school graduation that he attended on Saturday at Kaplan Arena in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Candelario said he celebrated her final achievements of her adolescence, being a volunteer and a Girl Scout. In her final year of scouts, Allison contacted women’s health professionals in the region to consult on her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She built a curriculum that teaches girls about the physiology of their bodies. She also logged 880 volunteer hours as a senior.

“We knew … that she has accomplished so much,” Candelario said. “I’m very proud.”

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