In April 2009, Brittany (Wallace) Strout was a 17-year-old high school senior in San Antonio, who had decided to attend University of Northern Colorado, a 17-hour-drive from home. The daughter of a wounded soldier, she planned to study psychology to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder so she could help veterans and their families.
Meanwhile, Operation Homefront had just launched a new award to recognize the extraordinary contributions of military children. Receiving 450 nominations for Military Child of the Year® , a panel of judges would select only one recipient.
That first Military Child of the Year® was Brittany. Two years earlier, at the age of 15, she had taken on much greater family responsibilities after her stepfather, Robert “Bobby” Henline, then an Army staff sergeant, was severely burned in a roadside bombing at the start of his fourth deployment to Iraq in 2007.
When Bobby was wounded, the family was living near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While Brittany’s mother, Connie Henline, traveled to be with her husband at what is now San Antonio Military Medical Center, Brittany helped care for her brother, then 9, and sister, then 8, with the help of relatives in North Carolina.
After Brittany and her siblings joined their parents in San Antonio three months later, Brittany got her provisional driver’s license so she could drive her brother and sister to and from school and appointments, all while going through her junior year of school herself. Connie was often at the hospital, or once Bobby was released months later, spending seven to nine hours a day on wound care.
“It was hard for my parents, especially my father, to balance that I was still his baby; yet I had grown up so quickly in such a short time,” Brittany said.
Today, Brittany, who turns 26 on Sept. 25, works with military families as assistant house manager at the Lackland AFB, Texas, Fisher House, part of a network of homes near military and Veterans Affairs hospitals where families can stay for free while a loved one receives treatment. She loves the job because “we stayed at the Fisher House when my dad was injured, so it’s kind of all coming back full circle.”
Receiving Military Child of the Year®, which now recognizes seven outstanding youth each year for scholarship, volunteerism and leadership while facing the challenges of military life, was a “big shock to the entire family,” Brittany said, adding that Operation Homefront “put down the red carpet” for their trip to Washington, D.C., to accept the award. “It was an amazing weekend for me and my family,” she said, with a highlight being a tour of the White House where they got to meet Michelle Obama and the first family’s dog, Bo. In 2010, Brittany and her father appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show with Michelle Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, who each got to pick a special guest. The first lady chose Brittany.
“When you think about the hard times in anyone’s life, you just get through the day. You don’t have time to think whether this is the right thing, or the wrong thing, you just do it,” she said. “Now, looking back at it, … I now know … that not everyone would do that, but a lot of military children would. They would step up. They would be the caregiver.”
“So many other organizations should be awarding these military children because they don’t have a choice,” Brittany continued. Their mom, dad, uncle or other family member made the choice, she said, but “the child is not given a choice.” “Their sacrifice just comes with the territory.”
She didn’t fully realize it at the time, but receiving the Military Child of the Year® award helped Brittany define herself, as media interviewers and others asked her about her role as her father started his long healing process that has involved more than 40 surgeries, amputating his left hand, and turning to stand-up comedy and motivational speaking.
That time in their lives would have a profound effect on Brittany’s choices. She graduated from University of Northern Colorado in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a major she chose because she was fascinated by post-traumatic stress disorder and how war affects soldiers differently. She wanted to learn more about why military members “like so much adrenalin,” and when returning home from deployment, “why do some excel, and some, honestly, give up on life.”
She starts in January a master’s program in social work at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She needs an advanced degree so she can counsel wounded service members and their families, a choice shaped by her own family’s experience. Ultimately, she wants to be a wounded warrior case manager at Randolph AFB, Texas.
Brittany also is a newlywed, married to Billy, whom she met just before traveling to Washington, D.C., for the Military Child of the Year ceremony, and the mother of a 3-year-old girl, Addison Hope. In the next five months, she’s a bridesmaid in four friends’ weddings — two in San Antonio, one in Nebraska and one in Hawaii.
Brittany said she’s thankful to have a great support system between her family and Billy’s because life will become even more demanding once her master’s program starts. Their daughter keeps them on their toes.
“She has so much attitude,” Brittany said. “I don’t know where she gets it from. She is a spitfire.” Addison corrects her mother’s driving, Brittany said. She has been walking since she was eight months old, and she taught herself to swim.
Asked about advice for other military children and future Military Child of the Year® award recipients, Brittany said: “The most important thing … is to always take care of yourself in order to be the best mother, wife, friend, coworker. You have to nurture every aspect of your life to be the best in any one of them.
“I travel a lot because that’s what makes me happy,” she said. “I can’t be a great example to my daughter if I’m not happy.”
“I think it’s so amazing that Operation Homefront awards, now, seven awards to these children who are just trying to get through so many different obstacles that they are put through that other kids are not.”
In each of the first two years of Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year® program, the nonprofit organization named only one awardee. Starting in 2011, judges selected a child representing each branch of the military for a total of five awards. In 2015, Operation Homefront added the National Guard, for a total of six awards. And in 2016, a seventh award was added, the Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation presented by Booz Allen Hamilton. This award is given for designing a bold, creative solution to a local, regional or global challenge, such as an invention, improvement to existing technology, or creation or expansion of a nonprofit or community service group. Operation Homefront and sponsors present the awards, including a $10,000 cash prize and other gifts, at a gala in April, the Month of the Military Child.
Military kids may not see the challenges in their lives as potential obstacles to overcome at the time, but those successes will serve them well later professionally and personally, Brittany said. She also emphasized the value of higher education. “I can’t stress to children [enough] how important college is, not only in the career field but also for personal growth. You can never be too educated, not just in academics, but in life,” she said.
Choosing a Colorado college was the right step for her, she said. Her family had been stationed in Colorado Springs when she was in eighth and ninth grades, and Brittany kept in touch with some friends she met there. She joined Sigma Kappa, becoming the sorority’s vice president of communications and then, in her senior year, its president.
“It was what I needed. I needed to have fun,” she said. “I needed to focus on myself, and I definitely got to do that in Colorado.”