Throughout U.S. history, a common theme can be found: Americans striving to establish a collective voice to represent their cause, demographic and unique experience. Military spouses are no different. As the women and men charged with supporting those who defend the nation in the post-9/11 era, there are trials, tribulations and triumphs that call for attention after 18 years at war. Six women recently took their earned place at the proverbial megaphone after being named Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year® for their respective branches.
Each year, local events around installations honor the role military spouses play in the community. On a national level, since 2008, this particular award program has gone a step beyond providing a ‘thank you.’ The Military Spouse of the Year award recognizes recipients for what they have done, while providing them with a larger platform to impact a topic important to them. In the past, honorees have fought for better care for military kids with special needs, championed military marriages, elevated the conversation surrounding spouse employment, and more.
This year’s representatives are:
Katelyn Tinsley, Air Force
Air Force veteran Katelyn Tinsley understands both sides of the uniform. She decided to enlist in the military after graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and endured many of the financial hardships often experienced by junior enlisted families. It was those experiences that led her to explore the power of art.
“I went from the bottom up, met my husband right away and we didn’t have anything. I saw different gaps from my own active duty service and then on the other side, when he deployed, I found out I was pregnant and I couldn’t even get in touch with him. And we didn’t have much, and I started having mental health and anxiety issues and depression,” she said.
During that tumultuous time in her life, Tinsley found healing through arts. She used her talent to make the family’s house feel like a home – even with a limited budget. Today, she duplicates those efforts through the organization she founded called Homefront Revival.
“I founded Homefront originally with outreach projects to deployed spouses because that’s where my need was driven from and I felt like a huge absence for deployed spouses. I had the support as a veteran but didn’t have anything on the side of the spouse, so I really wanted to do something that was like a third party to the base – providing outreach during tough times,” she said.
With a team of dedicated volunteers, Tinsley redesigns homes of deserving families into a comfort zone full of style. Originally launched near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., she plans to expand her reach.
“Homefront started with projects for deployed spouses, but it has grown into projects for families in need – military families who are overextended on credit card debt or reach out to us because they don’t have anything. It’s also turned into a creative art program through hosting an open art studio space,” Tinsley said.
In 2018, Tinsley’s team completed 16 home renovation projects across five military installations in North Carolina.
Fun facts –
Currently reading: Becoming by Michelle Obama.
Destress activity: Yoga and decorating/design.
A topic she would like to highlight: spouse isolation.
Maria Reed, Army
Media content creator Maria Reed found a way to marry her love of video production and helping military families. She was a filmmaker when she married her husband, Patrick, 16 years ago and gave that up to support his Army calling. Rather than seeing this decision as a negative, Reed saw it as an opportunity to use her skillset for her own venture.
“My background is in television – I was a director and a producer for 20 years but it was always for other people. I left the industry because we had small children and my husband was in the military,” she said. “I gave up my career, which I wholeheartedly wanted to because I wanted to stay at home, but staying at home lasted only six months because I need to work. It’s in me,” she said.
Reed then pursued teaching to show kids how to be storytellers, but after 1o years felt like she lost her identity.
“I like, I’m my kids’ mom, I was the computer teacher, I’m his wife, but who am I? What am I doing? So, it was literally after binge-watching home improvement shows that I didn’t like how military families were portrayed,” Reed said.
She created Moving With The Military, a home improvement and lifestyle series dedicated to helping military families turn a house into a home, according to its website. It was a way to flip the script. She approached various companies for support, but continuously was told her operation was too small for financial backing.
“We became our own champions,” she said.
Moving With The Military is a movement, Reed says, surprising members of the military community with makeovers. Because families often look at their homes as a temporary place, she strives to help them look past four walls and instead invest in themselves.
“This is your space. This is your room. We want to do it for you so that you have your comfort, so that you feel ‘I belong here’ and it was never a question of temporary,” she described.
Reed plans to use her award year as a year of giving and grow the “pay-it-forward effect.”
Fun facts –
Favorite book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coalho.
Something people don’t know about you: She busts out in a British accent sporadically.
Birthplace: Mariano, Cuba
Jessica Manfre, Coast Guard
Graduate student Jessica Manfre truly did not know what she was getting into when the guy she went on a first date with told her he served in the Coast Guard. Fast forward 14 years to the present and she not only volunteers for the organizations that support her branch, but she also stepped up fiercely to support fellow families during the recent government shutdown.
Manfre, a Florida native, has served on committees and boards of the Jersey Cape Military Spouses Club for the last three years. During this year’s government shutdown that left Coast Guardsmen and federal workers without pay, she worked with the local command to champion a food pantry committee. She says spouse clubs are a great asset for the community.
“When we moved here, immediately, one of the most welcoming women was a part of it [the spouse club] and she said ‘you have to come to a meeting with me.’ She didn’t know me for more than a day and she was already offering for me to ride with her to the meeting,” she said during a phone interview. “When you are a military spouse, you have to band together. If our spouses are underway – or things like that – if you’re not involved, and you hermit yourself at home you’re going to have a lot of issues.”
The mom of two is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work degree with sights set on working “for a military base or local VA for active military, families, and veterans,” according to her MSOY profile. She plans to use the award platform to continuing bringing awareness to the topics that are close to her heart.
“Success would be helping as many families as possible. You know, even without this [award], it’s important to me to bring awareness to mental health and substance use treatment availability. So those are the issues that I am most passionate about.”
Fun facts –
Most recent read: An avid fan of mystery and thriller books, she last read A Killer’s Mind.
Go-to activity: Grab 30 minutes of quiet time to read.
Favorite resource: CG Suprt.
Holly Vega, Marine Corps
Serial volunteer Holly Vega balances many roles as a student, education advocate and mentor. She prides herself on being a connector by bringing spouses together through the different programs and organizations she is a part of, such as Marine Corps L.I.N.K.S., Military Spouse Bible Study and South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Vega plans to use her award year to encourage spouses to go after whatever it is that interests them.
“[I want] To show military spouses across all branches that you can have more than one passion and make a difference in more than just one area. My passions and commitments are to unite and support other spouses in their goals, provide cohesion to military kids through school programs that can be implemented worldwide, and bring more attention to the importance of heart health for our military families,” Vega said in an email response.
Vega, who is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, is the business development manager for Military Home Base — a free real estate concierge service providing transition support to families. Every Tuesday, listeners can join Vega at Mimosas in the Morning.
She also advocates for consistency in education for military kids and shares recommendations for parents preparing to relocate.
“Start with who you know who may already be in the area to which you are moving. Arrange school visits during house hunting trips. Be careful on relying solely on reviews you see online. Get your questions answered by other spouses in the area or by a trusted resource in the area. School Liaison Officers can be invaluable in gaining a better understanding of how a new school district operates,” she said.
In addition to being named a branch representative, Vega received the overall title for this year’s Military Spouse of the Year award.
Fun facts –
What are you reading: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
Go-to activities: Reading and hanging out with my friends.
Favorite program: Military Child Education Coalition
Michelle Norman, Navy
Special education advocate Michelle Norman found herself in an unexpected fight after her first child, Marisa, was born premature in 2003. Her daughter received a series of life-changing medical diagnoses putting the family in a position to demand sufficient services for her care. Though it wouldn’t be the first time Norman challenged the status quo.
In the early years of her military life, the couple was stationed in Japan near an incinerator that was thought to be causing health problems. Norman and a group of spouses researched the effects, then contacted Congressional and Navy leadership with their concerns. She received pushback for speaking up and was warned it could impact her husband’s career.
“My biggest supporter at the time was my husband and he said, ‘look, you do not have a rank, you’re not in the military and people need your voice – because you’re here to help other military families, and don’t worry about me. This is my job and it’s separate from what you’re doing,” she said.
The incinerator was shut down shortly after they moved. The experience empowered her to mentor others about using their voice. “It’s so important to speak up on behalf of others who are afraid,” Norman added.
And she has continued to speak up and stand up, including against the Virginia school system that was failing her daughter’s educational needs. Norman then co-founded Parents for FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) and works with families of all military branches on the effectiveness of the Exceptional Family Military Program.
The role of caregiver is a demanding one, which is why Norman recommends others make the time to focus on their own wellness. For her that means meeting her tribe for coffee, heading to the gym or going on a date night with her husband Cass.
“That [self-care] is so important,” she said. “We have it setup where we do a date night if my husband is in town because I think it is so very important to keep your marriage strong, no matter what is going on in his job or anything that is going on in our lives. We need to make sure that we keep the core strong and to ensure we’re a married couple first, then we are parents.”
Fun facts –
Currently reading: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.
A favorite program: Navy respite care.
Topic she is passionate about: Effective education.
Samantha Gomolka, National Guard
New York-native Samantha Gomolka is as dedicated to her career as she is to giving back. By trade, she works as a physician assistant, but her true passion project is personal. She and her husband, Michael, started Project 33 Memorial Foundation – organization founded to preserve the memories of U.S. Special Operations soldiers killed in action since September 11, 2001.
Gomolka says the idea came to be during a Memorial Day picnic.
“The original plan was for him [Michael] to run solo with the American flag in our town on Memorial Day morning; but our hometown has too much love to give for that. We knew that local citizens would want to support him, and the idea blossomed. Our first Memorial run was held last Memorial Day; we had approximately 50 participants. There is only one rule to run with Project 33; no runner shall pass the flag. The flag represents the fallen,” she said in an email.
As a National Guard wife, Gomolka is focused on connecting her peers to the same level of support active duty spouses have immediate access to. She says it is vital to create cohesiveness.
“In the next year, I am working to create a better network for spouses in the National Guard; for comradery and to help create channels of communication for spouses providing information on a wide range of topics; focusing on healthcare,” she explained.
Fun facts –
Favorite book to read: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It was originally a gift for her baby shower but she has found many intersections between military life and the book’s message.
Activity she enjoys all for herself: Reading.
Go-to resource: Our Military Kids.
The Military Spouse of the Year recipients received their formal awards during a ceremony Thursday at Patton Hall in Fort Myer, Va. Several notable guests were in attendance to present the awards, including Army Gen. Mark Milley who was nominated by President Trump to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Honorees will get the opportunity to participate in a number of events during the next year in support of military spouses from around the world. Visit Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year® to learn more about the award program and what to expect in the coming year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bianca Strzalkowski was named the 2011 Military Spouse of the Year and has been engaged with the program since that time. She did not personally know any of the 2019 recipients prior to these interviews.