Meet Mary Aguinaga, a Military Spouse, Sister, and Mom. She Honors Other Military Families Through Volunteering.
When volunteer Mary Aguinaga places a bag of food into the hands of a service member at an Operation Homefront Holiday Meals for Military® event, she thinks about what it means for the family.
Mary understands the struggles.
She was first introduced to the military lifestyle when her brother joined the Navy. Though she knew it was a good move for him, his separation from their closeknit family was painful. After she had children, she begged her brother to come home to Yuma, Arizona, so his kids and hers could form a bond like they knew growing up.
Then, just two years after her brother retired from the Navy, Mary became a military spouse with her marriage to Marine Gunnery Sgt. Juan Aguinaga. She and her three children left Yuma – the only town they had ever known – and moved with Juan to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, where he was assigned as an active-duty Marine.
“Those giving monetarily don’t realize the impact they’re making on these military families. Having that benefit of a meal or having school supplies is one less thing they have to worry about.” – Mary Aguinaga, military spouse and Operation Homefront volunteer
Over 16 years and seven duty stations, she and Juan have grown their household to a family of eight with two sons and four daughters who range in age from 27 to 6. She became a military mom when her eldest son joined the Marine Corps in 2018.
The Aguinaga family currently lives at their seventh duty station, this one in Milton, Florida, near Pensacola Naval Air Station.
While stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, about seven years ago, Mary encountered a volunteer packing food for a Holiday Meals for Military (HMFM) event.
“I wanted to be part of it and be able to assist other families,” she said, remembering times her family participated in food drives.
“When I first received from Holiday Meals for Military, I had a person tell me, ‘Thank you for the honor of allowing me to help you,’” she said. “Those were the kindest words someone could have said to me. I wanted to be part of welcoming people and letting them know it’s not a handout, it’s part of honoring the sacrifices military families make.”
At her first event as an Operation Homefront volunteer, one family’s story struck a chord with Mary.
“They had moved to El Paso on a humanitarian move because her mother was ill, and they were struggling with caregiving and maintaining a household. They didn’t have food for Thanksgiving,” she recalled.
The woman was grateful to receive the full turkey meal, but she also got food for breakfast the next day, along with napkins, plates, and everything else. The recipient said having everything she needed was a major stress reliever.
“She wanted to be there for her mom, and it was one less thing she had to worry about,” Mary said. “That resonated with me because I’m such a family person.”
Mary’s dedication to volunteering with Operation Homefront has, so far, stretched across four states. She enlists family members to help, too.
“My husband, whether he wants to or not, is doing heavy lifting. My children, whether they want to or not, are helping,” she said with a laugh. “It’s breeding that sense of community and volunteerism into their spirit.”
She recruits one of her three young daughters at a time to help her at events. At first, they were reluctant volunteers, but after a few opportunities to help their mother as she helped others, the girls request to be the lucky one who gets to volunteer with her.
Through multiple moves and Juan’s deployments to Afghanistan and Romania, Mary said, she and her children have learned to cope.
“You roll up your sleeves and roll with the punches. The kids saw how I was feeling and tried to pitch in and be part of the solution,” she said. Still, every relocation challenges her and the children.
“Each time we move, they’re leaving their best friends in the whole wide world” and then building new relationships, she said. “What gets me every time is filling out the school cards and adding emergency contacts” in a community where I don’t know anyone.
On the positive side, she sees how the lifestyle has instilled resilience and character in her children.
“I appreciate how they appreciate diversity,” she said. “Everywhere we’ve lived, we’ve had neighbors from other parts of the country and the world. They have been able to be involved in different cultures and mindsets they would have never been exposed to growing up in Yuma.”
Mary said giving her time is how she can help other families feeling isolated, and she wants donors to understand how their contributions boost service members, their spouses, and children. “Those giving monetarily don’t realize the impact they’re making on these military families,” she said. “There are so many who feel the displacement, the loneliness, and the awkwardness of being somewhere the culture is different from what they know. Having that benefit of a meal or having school supplies is one less thing they have to worry about.”