Mission of Hope: Guard Soldier Wants to Do Good for Country, Community, and Foster Youth

CDT Christina Meredith is in the Florida Army National Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP), which allows college students to serve in a Guard unit and ROTC at the same time.

CDT Christina Meredith is in the Florida Army National Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP), which allows college students to serve in a Guard unit and ROTC at the same time.

Christina Meredith believes that anything can be accomplished through hard work and determination.

The Florida Army National Guard Soldier, author, and non-profit founder, who is also on track to achieve her dream of becoming a military officer, isn’t wasting a single opportunity that comes her way.

“You can be offered the world, but if you don’t work, you’ll lose it, or you’ll waste it, and either one is a no-go.”

A survivor of years of abuse at the hands of her own family, CDT Meredith entered the foster care system as a teen, aging out of the system when she turned 18. While still in high school, this junior ROTC member and captain of her high school’s cross country and track and field teams became homeless, living in a car she was able to buy from working two part-time jobs.

It was in that car that she started reading the Bible and making lists of her goals. One of them was to tell her story so that other people would realize that they do not have to succumb to their circumstances. At an even younger age of 10, CDT Meredith vowed to herself after a beating by her mother that she would be nothing like the person who had just left her on the ground crying in pain.

She remembers telling herself, “You will be the antithesis of her. You will love people. You’ll be kind to people, and you will make a difference.”

CDT Meredith recognizes that her mother, too, had been a victim of abuse while she was growing up, and that abuse, without intervention, is often a cycle that can be passed from one generation to the next.

“The cycle of abuse and poverty is a real thing,” she says. “It takes a community of healthy families and organizations to wrap around broken families and children to rehabilitate them into society to the point where they’re giving back and not taking away.”

According to CDT Meredith, there are half a million U.S. children in foster care, 20,000 of whom age out of the system each year, and become homeless just like she did. Eighty percent of foster youth go into the prison system, she says, and many foster youth end up having babies themselves before they become adults.

“When I saw young people like myself giving in to the cycle of poverty, giving in to drugs, giving in to the welfare and prison system, it broke me,” she says.

She is hopeful that her story and her advocacy inspire people and effect change.

“My entire story is about hope, faith, hard work, achieving the dream and the purpose that you have been given in this life, and not allowing things to deter you, because circumstances change. With hard work and a little faith, you can make them change.”

And so when her dream of earning an ROTC scholarship for college didn’t work out, she moved to California and eventually got “discovered” by a pageant recruiter at a Whole Foods. Crowned Miss California United States in 2013, the title gave her a platform to talk about PTSD recovery via trauma therapy and foster care reform in its entirety.

“It really birthed this new chapter in my life where I always wanted to be: to travel, to speak, to share, offer hope and encouragement, and write my book.”

CDT Meredith’s memoir, “CinderGirl, My Journey Out of the Ashes to a Life of Hope,” will be released March 5.

CDT Meredith’s memoir, “CinderGirl, My Journey Out of the Ashes to a Life of Hope,” will be released March 5.

CDT Meredith’s memoir, “CinderGirl: My Journey Out of the Ashes to a Life of Hope,” will be released on March 5. The title is a reflection of how her life has been transformed.

“Growing up with nothing, being homeless with nothing, and then doing a national book tour is almost a Cinderella story.”

On her tour, CDT Meredith will be promoting the book and speaking on the issues that are also the focus of her non-profit organization: The Christina Meredith Foundation, based in Jacksonville, Fla. The foundation’s short-term plan is continued advocacy for foster care reform and mental health. Long-term, CDT Meredith envisions creating a facility where foster youth can live and have access to food, clothing, health care, and learn things like how to balance a checkbook, so long as they have a full-time job or are in school.

In the meantime, CDT Meredith is in school herself, working on a degree in international relations with a minor in psychology. She’s also in ROTC as part of the Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program. When she earns her commission next December, she plans to become a 25A Signals Officer in the same unit where she currently serves, where her job is to provide secure communications for her fellow Soldiers.

“I love the structure, I love the discipline,” she says of the Guard. “I love the camaraderie. I love that I’m doing good.”

Part of that good comes from knowing she is part of a team that saved lives in her home state when Hurricane Irma swept through Florida in 2017.

CDT Meredith has yet another goal on her list, and that’s to translate her degree and Guard experience into politics. She’s planning to run for office someday.

The flexibility of serving in the Guard part-time is allowing her the time to work on all of her goals.

“I have my civilian job and still have that military experience and leadership, and I can really bring something to my country.”

With its dual mission to serve the State and the Nation, the Army National Guard is always looking for service-minded people to join its ranks. Besides the satisfaction of knowing that your service is making a difference, the Guard offers training in more than 130 different jobs in fields like military intelligence, aviation, infantry, mechanics and maintenance, and more. Contact your local recruiter to learn more.

 

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Gaining Strength Through the Power of Music

INDIANAPOLIS – A quiet 17-year-old from the band halls of R. Nelson Snider High School discovered a lot about herself when she decided to join the military to pursue her love of music.

“I was a passive and quiet band geek that lived and breathed band hall,” says Staff Sergeant (SSG) LeeAnn Boaz. “First period was band and orchestra, second period was choir, third period was music theory, and fourth period would be either math or English.”

During her senior year in high school, SSG Boaz began taking college courses to continue her education in music. Later, she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology, as it was the closest field to music therapy that Indiana University-Purdue University offered.

SSG Boaz recalled taking a personality test at the university called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. It was no surprise to SSG Boaz that her results were introversion, intuition, feeling, and perception, or INFP. Even though her results did not align with the Myers-Briggs military personality type, it did not discourage her from pursuing the military.

SSG LeeAnn Boaz plays the bassoon for the 38th Infantry Division Band. She’s also the lead vocalist for the Indiana Army National Guard. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Ashley Westfall).

SSG LeeAnn Boaz plays the bassoon for the 38th Infantry Division Band. She’s also the lead vocalist for the Indiana Army National Guard. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Ashley Westfall).

“I knew I wanted to join the military, but I also wanted to be a professional musician. So, I began reaching out to recruiters in search of a military band.”

After meeting with local Navy and Air Force recruiters, SSG Boaz says a friend told her about the 38th Infantry Division Band in Indianapolis. Since she was already attending a local college, it felt like the perfect opportunity. In September 2004, SSG Boaz began her journey in the Indiana Army National Guard as a 42R Army Bandperson.

After completing Basic Training, she was assigned to the 38th Infantry Division Band as a bassoon instrumentalist. She recalls dusting off a bassoon that had not been touched in decades, and with all eyes on her, she played her first warm-up tune.

SSG Boaz continued to perform and excel as the primary bassoonist, but eventually her vocal talents resonated with her bandmates. At a young age, she performed with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, but being a vocalist came second to the bassoon. In 2009, the Defense Department asked her to participate in a pilot program for military vocalists at The School of Music in Norfolk, Va.

“Knowing Boaz, I wholeheartedly believe this attributed to her increased level of self-confidence and elevated her ability to perform in front of an audience,” says Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Lisa Kopczynski, the officer in charge of Indiana National Guard vocalists.

SSG Boaz now performs with the 38th Infantry Division Band and the ceremonial unit music section. She has become the lead vocalist for the Indiana National Guard, and is often asked to sing at venues like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Lucas Oil Stadium, and the Indiana War Memorial. All of this strengthened her character as a leader and noncommissioned officer.

“From these experiences, her stage presence and ability to connect to any audience took flight,” says LTC Kopczynski. “She has continued to excel in her performance, guiding her to be the leader she is today.”

By 2013, SSG Boaz was working full-time for the Guard, and was married with a second child on the way. The pregnancy brought new challenges that significantly changed her path as a service member. Her son was delivered through a cesarean section surgery, which led to a very difficult and traumatic recovery. She had worked hard to stay fit and healthy through the pregnancy so she would not struggle through her next annual Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT).

“You don’t realize how much you use your abdomen until it is cut open,” she says. “I vowed to get back up within four weeks so that I could start getting ready for my fitness test.”

SSG Boaz says running was never her strength, and she always struggled to pass APFT. After all, music was her passion, not fitness. She recalled the criticism she received in high school when she tried out for cross country, which broke down her confidence as a runner. She knew it was time to overcome that fear, so she built up the courage to ask co-workers if she could join them during their morning or afternoon runs.

“I had no idea I could enjoy running, but they gave me so much positive feedback and inspiration, that I ran my first 5K on Oct. 13, 2013, just one month after my C-section.”

From that day forward, SSG Boaz completed dozens of races to include two mini marathons. In 2016, she received her first APFT badge, feeling healthier than ever. With her confidence lifted, SSG Boaz knew she was ready for another challenge, so she signed up for the Master Fitness Trainer (MFT) course.

At the MFT course, SSG Boaz felt she was at the bottom of the totem pole, and being one of only two women at the course, the atmosphere was intimidating. SSG Boaz fought through the physical and mental obstacles, and completed the course in April 2017.

SSG Boaz is now working on her license to be a civilian fitness trainer and nutritionist, something she never felt a shy band member would achieve. She now enjoys fitness so much that she plans and executes fitness events for her unit. Those efforts have paid off, too.

“Her leadership and knowledge as the unit Master Fitness Trainer has helped the unit achieve the best pass or fail APFT percentage in several years,” says Sergeant First Class (SFC) Angela Seeley, readiness noncommissioned officer for the band.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would ever be a confident fitness leader for my unit, I would have said you are crazy,” says SSG Boaz.

Curious about how Myers-Briggs would rate her personality type now, Boaz retook the test in March. She now rates as extroversion, intuition, feeling and perception, or the ENFP personality type. She understood her previous personality type, but it did not stop her from taking a chance to become a military musician.

So that’s how one shy band geek transformed into an extrovert and a confident leader in the Indiana Army National Guard.

Being a Soldier in the Guard means serving your community and country while making a difference. The Guard provides education assistance, and offers training in more than 150 career fields including engineering, logistics, infantry, and administration. Reach out to your local recruiter to learn more.

From an original article by SSG Ashley Westfall, Indiana Army National Guard, which appeared in the Guard News section of NationalGuard.mil in December.

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Despite Dark Times, New Jersey Guard Recruiter Never Loses Hope

JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – All eyes are on New Jersey Army National Guard Captain (CPT) Domenico Lazzaro as he walks up to the podium using two canes.

It’s Oct. 18. Seventeen months have passed since CPT Lazzaro’s life changed due to a training accident.

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” he says.

For the next 45 minutes, he tells the story of how he has come to stand in front of the Soldiers, Airmen and civilians at Joint Force Headquarters located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He calls it: “Don’t dis my disability.”

On June 11, 2017, CPT Lazzaro fell while navigating an obstacle course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst during annual training and fractured his T8 vertebrae in the middle of the spine.

After seven hours of surgery, the doctors had fused five vertebrae from the thoracic to the lumbar regions.

In one day, CPT Lazzaro went from racing motorcycles and being an avid weightlifter to being paraplegic.

For most people, this would have been the start of coming to grips with a new reality, taking into consideration the accommodations they might need or the things they might not be able to do again. Others would simply give up.

CPT Lazzaro didn’t.

Three weeks later, something peculiar happened.

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen).

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen.)

“After my injury, I had a buzzing sensation in both legs similar to the feeling you get when a leg falls asleep, but I could not move them.”

CPT Lazzaro began to have some feeling in his foot.

“The first evening, I stayed up all night moving my left toes.”

According to his doctors, this was unusual, because recovery occurs from the point of injury down, not the other way around.

“The doctors kept pushing me to move things, so I did,” says CPT Lazzaro.

This was not the first time that he had faced adversity.

In 1991, while a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s is a cancer in the lymphatic system where cells grow abnormally and can spread to other parts of the body.

For the next two years, CPT Lazzaro underwent radiation treatments. After 20 years, he is cancer-free.

In 2009, he reenlisted in the New Jersey National Guard and received his commission in August 2011. From 2015-2016, CPT Lazzaro deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the 328th Military Police Company’s executive officer. Upon his return, he accepted a full-time position as a specialty branch recruiter. Then last year’s accident occurred.

Because of his injury, CPT Lazzaro was given the option of medical retirement with disability.

“I want to continue to serve,” he says, refusing to give up.

In order to continue his service, he must be able to pass the Army physical fitness test in two years.

From July to December 2017, CPT Lazzaro was in a wheelchair. Then he used a walker until January 2018.

“I switched to forearm crutches from February to June, and started using canes from June until present,” he says.

During this time CPT Lazzaro was in intensive physical therapy.

“Once I started moving, I began using a glider – a type of upright elliptical that uses your arms to move the legs.”

He also uses an electronic stimulation bike that uses electric pulses to move his legs to pedal a bicycle, an exoskeleton harness that mechanically moves the legs, and locomotor training, while physical therapists move each leg and his hips to simulate walking on a treadmill. This is all combined with basic leg strengthening exercises.

All these devices serve one purpose: helping CPT Lazzaro learn to walk again.

Today, he can move with the aid of one cane.

“The more I progressed, the more I could do on my own,” he explains. “The physical therapists say my progress is staggering.”

CPT Lazzaro is back at work with specialty branch recruiting and serves as the 42nd Regional Support Group’s anti-terrorism officer.

He also spends time working with other paraplegic patients.

“I try to help people get past the idea that they can’t recover,” he says.

Because of his experiences, he brings one thing that is sometimes missing from other people: hope.

“Hope is very important,” CPT Lazzaro says. “Believing things will get better with time can help you progress and adapt to your situation.”

It is hope that drives him.

“I want to go back to my life the way I was,” he says. “I want to be the person I was.”

If you’re passionate about helping and healing others like the medical professionals who helped CPT Lazzaro, visit our job board and explore health care careers in the Army National Guard.

Being a Soldier in the Guard means serving your community and country while making a difference. The Guard provides education assistance, and offers training in more than 150 career fields including engineering, logistics, infantry, and aviation. Reach out to your local recruiter to learn more.

From an original article by MSG Mark Olson, New Jersey Army National Guard, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in October.

 

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