- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2018

Less than a week after Nicolas Munsen’s father died during exercises off the coast of Puerto Rico, his family received a heartbreaking letter: The Navy pilot soon intended to return home, retire from military service and focus on raising then-2-year-old Nicolas.

Lt. Craig Munsen wrote the letter before the August 1996 crash. It arrived days afterward, and his son read it years later.

“The week before he died, he wrote a letter to my mom that didn’t get there until after he died,” Nicolas Munsen said in an interview last week. “He was writing to say that how despite his love for flying … he thinks he’s going to stop after this time around because he wants to be there to raise me. That hit a lot harder than I thought it would.”

More than two decades after his father’s death, Mr. Munsen graduated from the University of Richmond with a degree in international studies. He said that achievement was possible only because of the Freedom Alliance, a Washington area-based group that offers financial aid and support to students with a parent who has been killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.

“They helped enable me to go to such a great school. They enabled me to get an education,” Mr. Munsen said during a discussion with other Gold Star students who visited Washington last week as part of the alliance’s annual weekend retreat.

Founded in 1990, the Freedom Alliance in the 2017-2018 academic year gave scholarships totaling more than $1.3 million to 327 students. Since 2001, the organization has provided more than $13 million in scholarship assistance, requiring only that students maintain a GPA above 2.0.

Mr. Munsen received a Freedom Alliance scholarship during each of his four years at Richmond, he said.

Beneath the financial assistance, organization leaders say, they have a deeper purpose in mind: to connect young adults such as Mr. Munsen with others who have lived through the same kind of tragedy and build a support system that can last a lifetime.

“At their schools and their communities, they may be the only one, or one of the few, who has this very unique experience. Bringing them together allows them to build a network of support. … They can rely on each other when it gets tougher,” said Freedom Alliance President Thomas P. Kilgannon.

The scholarships are funded entirely through donations, according to the group’s website. Freedom Alliance also runs a host of other programs aimed at helping veterans and their families.

During a discussion with The Washington Times, the scholarship students spoke openly about their thoughts on war, how they have sometimes struggled to hear stories about their late fathers and how the group’s yearly gatherings have become crucial to their personal healing processes.

Shelby Summers, another recipient who this year serves as the alliance’s scholarship ambassador, said she was inundated by organizations looking to help her and her family after her father, Army Sgt. Severine Summers, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2009.

She said she has benefited most from connecting with others her age who also have lost a parent in military service.

“We’ve all gone through the same thing,” she said. “With Freedom Alliance, you explore D.C., you go to your parent’s grave at Arlington … and you just have fun, and you connect, people your age who have gone through the same thing.”

Ms. Summers is a sophomore at Baton Rouge Community College. She said she plans to apply to the New York Institute of Interior Design.

Ms. Summers was also candid in describing how her father’s death led her to ask tough questions about the necessity of war and America’s role in the world.

“He wanted to go fight bad guys. He was really good at it. And I completely respect and appreciate it and am proud of it,” she said. “But sometimes I do question, ‘Why is this war happening?’ — the moral and ethical part of it.”

Scott Zangas, a freshman studying computer science at Penn State University, said he has gained some closure after reading the journals written by his father, Robert Zangas, a Marine who died in Iraq during an attack by insurgents posing as Iraqi police.

“You could tell by reading that that he was there to see change any way he could,” said Mr. Zangas, describing his father’s “selfless” attitude in simply wanting to help the Iraqi people however possible.

“I was about 5 [years old], almost 6, when he was killed in action. That spun my life around,” Mr. Zangas said. “The support that I get — not to mention financially — but it’s the community built by this organization that lets me know we have support for families just like me. And that goes beyond words.”

Brandi Anderson, a senior at Stetson University who is studying public management, said her father, Michael Anderson, re-enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was killed by enemy fire in 2004 in Iraq’s Anbar province.

“I’ve always tried to mirror him and make him and my mom proud every day,” she said.

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