Often when you see a military member in uniform, you'll see people stop to thank them for their service, for their sacrifice, in keeping this country safe. What you don't see a lot of the time, is people stopping to thank the families of these brave men and women.
That's what the General H Norman Schwarzkopf Military Family of the Year award aims to reconcile. Given by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in conjunction with the Central Florida USO, the award is named after the late General Schwarzkopf and his family.
"You can't help someone get up a hill without getting closer to the top yourself."
It is something the General was famous for saying as a way of reiterating that the strength, commitment and resiliency that members of the military display day in and day out comes from the support and encouragement of those around them a.k.a. their families.
Each year, a family from each branch of the military: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and National Guard/Reserves is chosen as a family who has best demonstrated the values of integrity, courage, commitment and service before self, while sharing in the sacrifices of service to our country.
One of those families awarded this year was the family of Petty Officer First Class Patricia Stanton of the U.S. Navy. It is not only her country that Officer Stanton serves, it is also her community, along with her family, who have collectively volunteered over 1,100 hours just last year alone.
"What's funny is it seems sort of weird to be recognized for something that we just do on a weekly basis," Officer Stanton said. "Every Wednesday night, we're at church and I lead an eighth-grade girls' small group. Every Sunday morning [my daughters] are at church watching the babies and teaching Sunday school. Or 'hey, there's a Navy event going on, we need some volunteers,' 'alright, come on crew, let's go' and we're there. If we can make it, we're there."
Officer Stanton and her family have volunteered through their church, Centerpoint in Valrico, and around the world. They will soon all be going on a mission trip to South Africa. Both Officer Stanton and her daughter, Elise, have already completed a mission trip in the country and in turn, it has afforded the younger Stanton with undoubtedly a more advanced worldview than her peers, while having a little fun along the way.
"It definitely allowed me to see how their daily lives are and to sort of show me, 'hey, everybody's life isn't perfect, yet you can still help them out," Elise said of working with orphaned children in South Africa. "It was nice to see all the orphan kids that we visited were also very happy and playful and it was very fun.
"To see what little they had and how happy they were, it really puts things in perspective," her father, Joe Stanton, added.
Closer to home, the family takes advantage of opportunities to serve through various avenues, including the Navy. They volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House about three-to-four times a year through both the Navy and Joe's company, Raymond James, and Officer Stanton was even a Girl Scout Troop leader for eight years while her daughters participated as scouts. Service has always been something that's been important to the family and the Navy has provided even more opportunity to continue their efforts.
"We did it before the Navy, but the Navy definitely has opportunities," Officer Stanton said. "The Navy is very service-oriented and we try to do at least one service project a month. We try to go as a family to as many of them as we can."
Service is a way the Stanton family comes together and copes with the challenges faced as the family of a service member.
"By allowing these opportunities to get involved in the community, I think it really makes some connections [with] the military," Joe said. "You're either a military family, or you know somebody, or you're not, and I think it kind of bridges the gap."
"It's different, because not a lot of kids have military parents," Officer Stanton's youngest daughter, Zoe, said. "A lot of them have grandparents, or aunts and uncles, not their mom."
"The uncertainty of your future is one of the biggest challenges," Officer Stanton said of military life and the stress it places on the family. "You know, what do you do next? Where do you go next? What's next on the agenda?"
The Stanton's are examples of countless military families across the country that deal with that same uncertainty but have managed to continue to serve others and display nothing but humility when recognized for their efforts.
"We are so honored to be here," Officer Stanton said. "It's a very exciting thing for our family and so cool for the girls."
The Stanton family filed into the auditorium at One Buccaneer Place with members of their extended family in tow. A total of six families were honored Thursday night, representing all branches of the military. Key note speakers included Owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and President of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation and Glazer Family Foundation Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, remarking that this event was one of her favorites of the year because of how important serving members of the military is for the Buccaneers as an organization.
Offensive lineman Evan Smith addressed the group, having military ties himself through his father and brother, among other relatives. Smith choked up when speaking of his brother, who is a Purple Heart recipient and served two tours in Iraq, and the impact his deployments had on the family. He also credited the military for being the vessel that taught him discipline and hard work, two characteristics that helped him get to where he is today.
It was a message that resonated with many in attendance, understanding the unique challenges members of the military and their families face. Representative of the Central Florida USO, Linda Carbone, said a few words as well, calling the military family 'the force behind the forces.' In stressing that the night was about the families in attendance, she told parents of small children to 'let them be loud' to which a toddler cried out 'yay!' resulting in thunderous laughter from the crowd.
It was a playful reminder of why this award is so important to the Buccaneers, the USO and the Schwarzkopf family, themselves. The family is truly the driving force behind the men and women that keep our nation free. It was General Schwarzkopf's daughter, Cindy, a self-proclaimed 'military brat' herself, that said it best:
"It is love of country that sends them away, but it is love of family that brings them back home."