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Speaker Thanks Coalition for Championing Military Children

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., July 22, 2004 – "Yours is a noble calling to be a voice for the unsung partners in America's national defense, our military children," said Lea Ann Edwards, wife of Texas Congressman Chet Edwards, at the Military Child Education Coalition sixth annual conference here July 21.

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No Medals of Honor are given to military children for the sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty every time a parent is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, Lea Ann Edwards, wife of Texas Congressman Chet Edwards, told attendees at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 21. Photo by Rudi Williams

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"There are no Medals of Honor given to our military children, but time and again our nation asks them to sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty," Edwards told conference attendees.

More than 450 educators, administrators, military leaders, parents and students from around the world gathered for the annual conference. The coalition is a non-profit national and international organization that serves children wherever the military family is located around the world. It focuses on the highly mobile military child and his or her educational opportunities.

This year's theme, "Pioneering for Children," centers on making a difference in the lives of military children who serve and sacrifice for the nation in a unique way.

"I have often wondered how one puts a price on a young student being asked to leave his or her best friends and favorite school because duty calls their family away?" Edwards said. "And then to do it again, and again and again. There are no make-up days when moms or dads miss recitals, baseball games and graduations.

"And those are the sacrifices our military children make in times of peace," Edwards noted. She said in times of war when parents are in harm's way that the sacrifice of separation and the fears of mom or dad never coming home are a cost of combat that can never be fully measured.

She pointed out that the nation sets aside Veterans Day and Memorial Day to honor the sacrifices of those who have served the nation in uniform. Perhaps, she said, Congress should designate a Military Child Day. "Not as a national holiday," she said, "but as a day when our nation could honor those too young to serve, but not too young to share the sacrifice of protecting the American family."

Edwards said she was humbled and inspired to be with so many caring individuals who honor military children every day with their time, service and love. "Having visited so many families at Fort Hood (Texas), I know our military children deserve all we can do for them and much more," she said. "You will continue to be at the vanguard of that effort, and I salute you for your caring leadership."

Edwards pointed out that she and her husband have seen two wartime deployments of Fort Hood soldiers to Iraq. "We've seen the tears of deployment, the unbridled joy of homecomings and the challenge of family readjustment," Edwards said.

"We've shared in the happiness of small children seeing and talking to their deployed moms and dads by video conferences. We have also felt the unspeakable sorrow of 25-year-old military widows cuddling babies who will never be held by their fathers."

She said that's why they feel so strongly that Congress has a solemn responsibility to support military children. "Unfortunately, the truth is that military family issues don't always receive the high priority they deserve in Congress," Edwards said.

Edwards said reasons include only 29 percent of House members and 39 percent of senators are veterans. She said the percentages are decreasing with each new Congress, which means fewer members know firsthand the challenges facing military families.

Another reason is the closing of military installations under the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closing, or BRAC, Edwards said. Noting that another BRAC is slated for 2005, she said that means even fewer House members will have military installations in their districts and fewer senators will have them in their states.

A third reason is "legions of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., supporting multibillion dollar procurement programs, but very few voices there speaking up for military families and children," she said.

The Pentagon understands the importance of taking care of military families, Edwards said. She added that issues such as housing, health care, day care and education often take a back seat, because commanders must first fund procurement and training budgets that have an immediate impact on readiness.

Impact-aid education funding faces even another barrier, because, she said, it's funded by the Department of Education, an agency where military children are not necessarily the first priority. But she did note that "since 1995, impact aid funding has increased from $728 million to $1.23 billion."

Edwards called the coalition "a strong voice, a vital voice, for children whose needs might otherwise go unheard."

"By bringing education, community and military leaders together, you directly address many problems without needing congressional involvement," she said.

She said it's impossible for her to match MCEC's service to military children, but she considers it a privilege to be able to select MCEC as the charity of the year for the First Lady's Luncheon, where she was delivering her speech. This marked the 94th year the luncheon was hosted by the Congressional Club, a nonpartisan organization made up of spouses of current and former members of Congress.

"In honoring Mrs. Bush, our theme was 'A Salute to Our Military and Their Families,'" Edwards noted. "Every person at the luncheon was impressed when Mrs. Bush spoke so eloquently about the tremendous work you do through the Military Child Education Coalition. When Mrs. Bush described the incredible sacrifices of our military families, I could not help but think about one of those families."

Edwards talked about how overwhelmed she and her husband were on Sept. 1, 2003, when they visited soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington who had been wounded in Iraq. She said the first soldier they met was Sgt. Robert Armstrong.

"Gunny Armstrong was protecting a children's hospital near Baghdad when insurgents attacked him with grenades," Edwards said. "He was badly wounded and lost one eye and a leg. Gunny lost so much blood that his heart stopped beating five times. The Army was so sure he would die that they gave him an immediate medical retirement to increase his wife's and children's benefits upon his death.

"But Gunny Armstrong didn't die," Edwards noted. "As he was going in and out of consciousness, literally on the edge of life and death, he kept mentioning the name Mary, Mary, Mary. Army doctors and medics didn't know who Mary was and assumed he was just hallucinating.

"It turns out that Mary was his 15-year-old daughter back in Killeen, Texas, and this loving father had made a promise to his daughter: that he would come home from Iraq to see her again," she said.

"As he barely clung to life thousands of miles away from his family, Gunny Armstrong's love of his family and his promise to his daughter gave him the will to live when others had lost hope," Edwards said.

Edwards said she was in the hospital room when Mary walked in with her brother and saw her father for the first time in five months. "When Gunny's wife saw Mary, she turned to her daughter and said, 'You see, Mary, I told you. Your father always keeps his promises.'"

She then showed a video of the emotions, tears and hugs of love of service members and their spouses and children when service members deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When I see this video, I realize our nation can never fully repay our military families for the sacrifices they make for the American family," Edwards said. "But, tonight, when I go home to be with my two young sons, I will thank God for Gunny Armstrong and his family and for millions of other military families, past and present, who have protected our nation with their unselfish service and sacrifice."

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Military Child Education Coalition

Click photo for screen-resolution imageLea Ann Edwards, left, chats with Joyce Thomas of the Bossier City, La., school district, after delivering the keynote speech at the Military Child Education Coalition sixth annual conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 21. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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