For many of the military spouses who have won the Armed Forces Insurance (AFI) Military Spouse of the Year ® awards for their service branch since its 2008 inception, the honor plucks them from quiet influence at their home duty station and ends, ultimately, with worldwide recognition in the military community.
That whirlwind of notoriety brings with it certain pressures and a feeling of responsibility to the military community, past winners say. But it also gives them the opportunity to figure out who they are as military spouses, while having a positive, notable impact on others.
For the year after the awards, the annual winners are often guided in those steps by mentors involved in the awards through Military Spouse magazine and Armed Forces Insurance. During this year, many of these spouses will streamline programs and advocacy movements they have created to better serve their military family. They will have the opportunity to pitch these programs for sponsorship, notably to the title sponsor, Armed Forces Insurance, which has gone on to sponsor a number of initiatives and projects created by the award recipients. And, when the year is over, the winners are sent out into the world to do their best.
The impact past winners continue to have nationally and on their chosen subjects is a testament not only to the focus the AFI Military Spouse of the Year ® program can give to military spouses, but the tenacity of the winners. And while their paths forward are as diverse as their backgrounds, their ability to continue to leverage that influence is undeniable.
In honor of Military Spouse Appreciation Day, we checked in with three past winners who exemplify that truth.
A 'Won't Give Up' Spirit
When Lakesha Cole won both the Armed Forces Insurance Marine Corps Spouse of the Year ® and AFI Military Spouse of the Year® overall award in 2014, she became the first person to win while stationed overseas. On Okinawa, Japan, Cole had established herself as an entrepreneur, cracking the code on owning and operating a business overseas while also running a storefront in the exchange.
Winning the AFI Military Spouse of the Year ® award thrust her success into the spotlight in a very small community. Appearances on national TV, a visit to the White House and a feature in Ebony magazine were part of the package -- but so were the scrutiny and pressure that come with suddenly being very well-known.
"There's no playbook or rule book on how to navigate that," she says. "I had to ask myself, 'Now I have this title. Now what do I do with it?'"
Cole has never stopped answering that question since the day she was given the award. With the AFI Military Spouse of the Year ®, Cole launched Milspousepreneur, an organization supporting military spouse entrepreneurs. Impressed with her drive and a belief in importance of Cole’s mission, award title sponsor Armed Forces Insurance elected to sponsor Milspousepreneur, as well. Since then, Cole has produced a guide for operating small businesses as an American military family member living in Japan.
But her real test came when it was time for her family to move to a new duty station stateside.
Not only did she find a way for her boutique, She Swank, to move stateside, she has since established a storefront near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; self-published a book on how she balances military life, family and owning a business; and helped start a new military spouse podcast. She also recently launched a stationery and gift product line.
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Cole says she is constantly surprised by her influence in the military community and that anyone cares what she thinks or does.
"One thing I learned with the Military Spouse of the Year ® awards is people do watch you, people are paying attention," she says. "I often feel like there's a certain level of responsibility on my part to make sure that I'm truthful and transparent and I'm doing what I can do to push people."
Local Focus, Big Impact
Military spouses often view their community from a global perspective. After all, home is where the military sends you. But former Army spouse and 2014 AFI Army Spouse of the Year ® Reda Hicks knows that sometimes the biggest changes and impact can be made in the community right outside your door.
Hicks, an in-house counsel for a global transportation company based in Houston, Texas, was selected for the award thanks, in part, to her advocacy for military spouse attorneys through the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN).
But unlike many other winners, Hicks' focus has never been nationally driven. Instead, she has used the award title and the recognition it brought to have a strategic impact on Houston, focusing on her passions such as civic engagement and veteran community support and, someday, running for office.
In addition to navigating her day job and life as a mom of three, Hicks sits on a parade of nonprofit boards and steering committees, including the Texas Lyceum, the League of Women Voters, Sketch City, and the Texas Veteran Spouse Network. She is the current chair of the board for Leadership Houston.
Central to Hicks' passions is working to get Houston engaged not only in supporting veterans but in thinking of itself as a veteran-rich community, she says.
"The biggest impact the award had for me was that with the title, so goes the ability to talk to people using that title," Hicks says. "People in my Houston community don't think of me as a military spouse. Having that title and being able to use it and build a fence around it ... it's given me a reason to speak about that part of my personality in a community that should think of itself as a military community."
Hicks sees her role as filling a middle ground between those who focus only on national issues and those who are entrenched only in the day-to-day of their city or town.
"As much as I love going to Washington and doing flybys and advocacy and all that ... it's almost like you need a third category of person, somebody who is local but also understands the national policy implications of what is happening locally [and] can walk into their representative's office. You can only be that third voice if you're there locally. I feel that's part of my package."
Pushing Military Couples Forward
Marriage is hard, but military marriage is often harder. Long separations and deployments, injuries, frequent moves and community tragedy are all just a normal part of military life. But they also come with special stress for military couples.
Corie Weathers, a licensed therapist and the 2015 AFI Army Spouse the Year® and overall Military Spouse of the Year, has long focused on helping military couples as part of her work with her Army chaplain husband. But when the award landed in her lap, she was forced to figure out her own identity outside of her roles as a chaplain spouse, wife, mom and clinician.
"One of the bigger things it did for me is that it caused me to have an identity crisis," she says. "The biggest question I got was 'What do I want to do?' I had always been the person to ask 'What do you need me to do?' "
What she wanted to do, she discovered, was support military marriages on a national scale. But it wasn't until an opportunity came to accompany then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on a Christmas 2015 visit to Afghanistan as a correspondent for Military Spouse magazine that she was really able to pursue that mission.
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During that trip, she learned to see her husband's war experience and military marriages through a different lens. She wrote about the experience in her 2016 book "Sacred Spaces," and launched a slew of new projects as a result.
"It put me in a position where I could see the military lifestyle from a higher level," she says. "Instead of being boots on the ground working with couples in my office, it gave me a higher-level perspective on what a lot of our families are going through."
That perspective is what informs her work as the producer of her Lifegiver podcast and app on military and first responder marriage support; a bi-monthly Military.com column; and as the lead speaker at a variety of seminars and trainings, including a recent trip to military bases in Japan.
But her most recent passion project could have an even bigger impact. In partnership with the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, Baylor University and the University of Texas, Weathers is working to develop a six-month military and first responder marriage support curriculum. The program will also include a curriculum for local therapists and counselors to help them better understand the challenges and issues military and first responder couples face, she says.
"It's given me the opportunity to not change one family at a time in my office, but hopefully hundreds of families at a time," Weathers says. "It's a big idea, but we feel like there's a lot of curriculum and books out there and retreats, and all of those are meaningful and helpful, but we really want to see what we can do to transform marriages."