A group of military teens were awarded earlier this year for “the positive impact” they are making on their military families, schools and communities.
Seven military kids are representing their peers in 2023 as part of the Military Child of the Year Award® — an Operation Homefront powered program in its 15th year. This year’s recipients are:
Mackenzie Hanna, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Army
Eighteen-year-old Mackenzie Hanna said the biggest challenge of military life is also her favorite part: moving.
The daughter of two retired Army lieutenant colonels, Hanna changed schools six times — including what she considered one of her toughest transitions, to a school in Massachusetts where most of the students grew up together. Still, she credits the relocations for shaping her perspective.
“I’ve seen places of the world that a lot of kids would never even dream of. And I’ve seen other cultures, other ways of living and it’s kind of given me a new perspective on life and it’s helped me become the person who I am today,” Hanna told Military Families Magazine prior to the Operation Homefront award ceremony.
Hanna had just come home from swim practice when her mom surprised her with a cake to announce she was chosen as the 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Army.
“I was shocked because there’s so many Army kids — a lot of my Army kid friends — they deserve it too,” she said.
But Hanna’s portfolio reveals obvious answers for why she received the accolades, starting with her leadership roles.
“I like to lead people. I became the president of a community service club called Family and Community Leaders; I’ve been doing that for the past couple of years,” she said. “And I became the captain of my swim team, as well. I think leadership is just something that helps me to inspire other people to give back to the community. Seeing my parents serve the country my whole life, I’ve kind of been drawn to service and that’s been an integral part of my life.”
Hanna added that “the fast-paced life” of a military family helped her learn adaptability because PCS moves every few years include adjusting to a new state or a new country — Germany topping her list of best places she’s been to.
She encourages other military kids on the move to be open to trying a lot of different things to find people with common interests.
“I know a lot of schools have a lot of clubs and sports, and I would recommend joining as many as you can and look for people likeminded to you,” she said, “that’s how I found a lot of my friends by joining a bunch of different clubs, then narrowing it down to the ones I resonated with the most.”
Hannah Marie Tokiwa, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Marine Corps
Music enthusiast Hannah Marie Tokiwa has lived in six locations, from North Carolina to Hawaii, but it is her time stationed in New York that connected her with her most treasured escape from the stresses of life: her clarinet.
The 17-year-old band member was introduced to the instrument seven years ago, and it has become a much-needed “constant” for tougher moments — like moving at the start of high school. Hannah Marie says finding “something you’re really passionate about” is the best way to overcome the change that is in military kids’ lives.
“I think the biggest thing that’s helped me on my journey is having something that is always constant in my life, so for me that would be music and academics,” she said. “I really just focus in on, whenever I’m stressed or I need an outlet because something’s overwhelming me, I just sit down with my clarinet or studying or doing work for school.”
Her family PCS’ed to Hawaii just as Hannah Marie was beginning high school. She said she immersed herself in her new surroundings — through talking to people, hiking and joining the school’s marching band — to get over the nerves of adapting to a new place.
Military kids move on average six to nine times during a parent’s career, according to the Department of Defense. Hannah Marie and her fellow MCOYs discussed how quickly they were able to form friendships with each other because of their shared experiences. It also helps them extend a hand to new students at their own schools.
“I think we ourselves, because we move around and are often the new friends, are used to putting ourselves out there and meeting new people,” she said, “so when another new kid comes around, we are the first one to put ourselves forward and introduce ourselves and try to involve them with the rest of the group.
“I think that’s something very great about military kids.”
Jemma Bates, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Navy
When 18-year-old Jemma Bates found out she was named the 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Navy, she said her first reaction was disbelief and her next thought was, “I couldn’t wait to meet the other kids.” And her dreams were realized when the group hit it off “very quickly.”
“We’re calling ourselves the MCOY family,” said Bates, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
After high school, Bates won’t be straying too far from her father’s footsteps — or her zip code — as she prepares to attend the United States Naval Academy. She plans to pursue a career as a fighter pilot.
“I knew I wanted to go to the Naval Academy and serve in the military in sixth grade,” she said. “I have always been inspired — my dad is my hero, I’ve always been a total daddy’s girl, and so I spend a lot of time with him; I went to his office on the flightline. My dad’s an NFO. I just loved being around the military. I just loved it.”
Bates recalled the “wow” feeling she had when she would see service women in uniform, including a neighbor who was one of the first females to don the coveted Blue Angels flight suit.
The passion that grew from those encounters would bleed into the many places Bates has dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours to, including the local unit of the Naval Sea Cadet Corps.
In 2020, Bates joined the Sea Cadets, holding positions as the unit corpsman, leading the color guard and serving as the leading chief petty officer, according to her biography. She credits the group with teaching her both sides of leadership.
“So much of leadership is learning, is what I have learned,” she said. “And being a young leader … it’s amazing to have this group of kids, and the adults who mentor me from the program.”
She also volunteers with BLOOM, an organization co-founded by Elena Ashburn, 2022 Military Child of the Year® for the Army. Bates said it is a great resource for military teens looking to connect with their peers.
She knows all too well of the highs and lows that accompany military life, after experiencing her own feeling of isolation when her family PCS’ed to Maryland mid-pandemic and her high school was completely virtual.
“Everybody goes through that [isolation], and I don’t think we realize everybody goes through that,” she said, adding her own advice. “Realize that you’re not alone. Find an outlet, be it BLOOM or talk to a chaplain — whether you’re a person of faith or not. Talk to your family. Find other military teens, we are so good at making friends with people.
“Military kids, military teens are always there for each other because that’s what we do.”
Louis Geer, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Air Force
Eagle Scout Louis Geer is experiencing the other side of military life, since his dad retired from the Air Force. But that transition came after the 18-year-old’s lifelong experiences with moving from community to community that ultimately shaped one of his most prominent qualities: giving back.
Geer adopted a commitment of leaving an imprint on San Antonio, Texas, after revealing gratitude for what others have done for him over the course of his dad’s military career.
“For the entire time I was growing up, I really had activities I enjoyed. Whether it be sports or academic activities, and those were all sort of held up by the local communities around me,” he said. “They were the ones organizing those events and making it possible for me, a 12-year-old, to find what I like the most. I feel like that’s such an important thing to help others around you just like they help you.”
Part of his efforts have included the creation of the San Antonio Book Pool, where Geer collects and distributes thousands of books annually to low-income students while partnering with other organizations. It is among the reasons he was chosen to represent his peers as the 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Air Force.
His focus on literacy was also evident through his Eagle Scout project, which encompassed establishing a Little Free Library.
Geer encourages other military kids to “seize opportunities wherever you can,” and if nothing is a good fit, create a good fit.
“My advice to any military kids would be to look out for those opportunities wherever you are,” he said. “If you’re moving around, you’re going to see a bunch of places, a bunch of different schools, and they might all have different activities but try to see what you like the most and stick with that, if you can. If you’re new somewhere and there’s no longer that passion of yours, try starting up something at your school or local community.”
The aspiring tech entrepreneur said although he is grateful that he was able to spend his entire high school career in one place, courtesy of his dad’s retirement, moving around and meeting so many people is his favorite part of the journey.
“I met some of my best friends and I still continue to talk to them to this day.”
Hayley Schreiner, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Space Force
Even though Space Force wasn’t established until 2019, Hayley Schreiner is no stranger to military life. Her dad served more than 20 years in the Air Force before making the switch to the Armed Forces’ youngest branch. He now serves as commander of Space Delta 20 of the U.S. Space Force Element to the National Reconnaissance Office.
Hayley said even though her dad isn’t deploying as much, his position requires him to commute daily which leaves little time for them to be together.
Her family chose the geographic bachelor approach to military life, staying put in Colorado — including a two-year assignment that took her father overseas. Hayley describes the separation as the most challenging part of his service.
“I think the hardest part was just really the unknowingness of if my dad’s going to come home or stay there for longer, when will I be able to see him again, when will I get to Skype with him again,” she said.
The 17-year-old aspiring engineering major said staying patient is what helped her through the months-long periods apart and knowing “that just because that military parent’s not there all the time, you can still succeed in your everyday life.”
She adds to, “find those little moments and make the best of them, no matter what.”
Hayley, who is a member of several groups like the National Honor Society, Altitude Volleyball Club 17 Navy team, Discovery Canyon Speech, and Debate Competition Team, among others, attributes part of her success to knowing she is part of a bigger community of military families.
“I think that I know no matter what, there’s family there for me. I’m here for them and we’re all just one large family. We’re all going through different experiences, but we all understand,” she said.
Haydn Jones, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Coast Guard
The son of dual-serving Coasties, Haydn Jones said he is considering a career in the military himself (with the Coast Guard as a top contender, of course). He aspires to be a pilot and engineer and is already building a resume of leadership-type bullet points.
Haydn, 17, is a cadet master sergeant and a flight sergeant in Civil Air Patrol and a life scout for Scouts BSA. And it is his long list of activities that helped him through having two parents in uniform — who were sometimes gone simultaneously, he says.
“My mom went to reservist when I was 3, maybe 2, … while we were growing up, for me and my brothers,” he said. “But she actually was deployed through the reserves — that was tough especially because my dad was working further away from home as well, so we had a nanny.
“It was hard, but we persevered as a family.”
The family now lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, after moving from North Carolina before Haydn’s freshman year of high school. Though the move was not easy, he says he values seeing different places.
“I really love to experience these new places, these different communities. … I love to go to these places, meet new people and just learn about the communities and get involved,” he said.
Haydn credits local support for helping him balance so many things, which has included starting a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at his high school and earning varsity letters in cross-country, soccer, and swimming and diving.
The incoming senior said he was “really surprised” to learn at swim finals that he was named 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the Coast Guard. His advice to other military kids navigating their own hurdles is to stay positive.
“One thing that definitely helps is staying positive, and the ways you can do that is by getting involved in your community; try to find whatever your hobby is,” Haydn said. “For me, it was a lot of outdoor activities — so I got involved in scouting and volunteer organizations … find friends in those communities and work through it.”
Jackson Griggs, 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the National Guard
Track star Jackson Griggs knows all about going the distance when it comes to extracurricular activities and stepping up for his peers.
The 18-year-old Alabama-based teen has been an active member of the Alabama National Guard Youth Council, which has allowed him to become a voice — and liaison — between schools and other military kids. The group meets quarterly to plan events, like a summer camp-style meetup, while advocating for Purple Up events. Griggs says his participation has helped him find invaluable connections.
“It’s been great to just see that there’s other kids like me, who have had to move around a lot, who’ve been through a lot of change in their life but have still managed to make the best of it,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to bond with other kids, because you can make friends at school but there’s not a lot of other kids who I meet at school who are like me in that aspect.”
And part of his unique life experiences extends to the family’s relocation overseas. Griggs described fond memories “of hours-long meals in Romania that focus as much on sharing time as on the food.” But it was also during that assignment when he became ill and had to be medically evacuated back to the U.S.
“My family has always been incredibly proud of my father’s service of 34 years with the Army and the Guard, but our deep appreciation for the National Guard family at large became concrete during crisis,” he wrote in an essay for Reserve + National Guard Magazine.
It is that support that helped him thrive in his current season of life, which has included a number of accolades in addition to being named the 2023 Military Child of the Year® for the National Guard: AP Scholar Award for AP chemistry, English, and U.S. history exams; Bryant-Jordan Achievement Award; Heisman High School Scholarship winner; among other record-holding achievements as a long-distance runner.