Veterans, military family members, businesses and organizations honored for their strength, courage and support of the warrior community

(Left to right): Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Kevin Bittenbender, Georgia Van Gundy, Amanda Jacobs Ballard, Stirling Colins, Elizabeth Wilkins and John Phelps

SPRINGFIELD, Va. (September 1, 2022) – Hope For The Warriors recently hosted its Summer Soiree at River Landing in Wallace, North Carolina. The annual event honored three members of our nation’s armed forces and their families with the Vigiano Family Hope & Courage Awards in addition to honoring individuals, corporations and organizations who have stood beside the organization in serving military families.

Hosted by World Series champion Doug Flynn and TV host John Daly, this annual event pays tribute to the Vigiano family, who lost both of their sons in the September 11th attacks. The Hope & Courage Awards are presented to service members and military family members who have demonstrated both hope and courage in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

“Coming together each year to present these awards is a truly memorable event that we all at HOPE look forward to,” said Robin Kelleher, Hope For The Warriors co-founder and CEO. “Honoring the individuals, families and corporations that have given so much through service reminds us all why we continue to serve military families in the capacity that we do.”

Demonstrating exceptional acts of courage and service and who embody the essence of self, family and hope, this year’s Vigiano Family Hope & Courage Award honorees included:

Gold Star mom Amanda Jacobs Ballard was recognized for her journey as a Gold Star mom and for working as a volunteer with Hope For The Warriors and recently as a Gold Star Tribute Ambassador for Honor Brewing allowing her to share her son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Phoenix-Jacob Levy’s, story, her grief, while connecting with other Gold Star families.

After losing her son, while serving in Afghanistan in December 2011, Ballard invited all of Levy’s fellow Marines from his platoon to visit her home. Eleven years later, she still welcomes the Marines and their families to her home each year to honor his memory with stories, pictures and love.

In addition to the annual gathering, Ballard has formed a scholarship at Levy’s high school, Eastern Randolph. The Lance Cpl. Jacob Levy Memorial Scholarship is a $1,000 scholarship for senior JROTC cadets and has currently gifted $17,000 worth of scholarships.

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Kevin Bittenbender was recognized for his service and as a multi-sport athlete who continues to showcase his honor, courage and commitment to our nation, his peers and leadership. Bittenbender is always willing to lend a hand when he is able.

Bittenbender deployed twice during his service while also preparing for a third mission that was later scrubbed. First, he left for Wiesbaden, Germany in 2002 as a red cell team to evaluate all European-U.S. bases for Threat Level Protection. He then spent 15 months within Afghanistan as an Embedded Tactical Trainer with the Afghan National Army and Police where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Combat Action Badge and where he first experienced signs of PTSD.

Today, Bittenbender works for the Department of Justice in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, and developed the Bureau Battle Buddy (B3) program. The B3 program focuses on staff wellness and assists deployed servicemen and women with transitioning back into the workforce, deployed employee’s family members and places emphasis on PTSD and suicide prevention.

In addition, Bittenbender co-founded Joint Task Force 22 to Zero which provides resources for those suffering with PTSD and TBI’s as a result from their work in the military, law enforcement and as first responders, EMTs and dispatchers. He also continues to participate alongside his fellow veterans with veteran service organizations including Hope For The Warriors, Operation Enduring Warrior, Oscar Mike and Freedom Bike.

He is currently the shooting coach for the U.S. Paralympic Biathlon Team and one of the developmental coaches for Biathlon and Nordic Skiing and works part-time as the director of military affairs at Pocono Raceway. A future goal of Bittenbender’s is to compete at the paralympic level in skeleton/bobsled and has attended several camps and the U.S. National Championships placing first in his classification in bobsled.

He continues to honor the memory of his friends and fellow soldiers Maj. Hank Ofeciar, Master Sgt. Scott Ball and Sgt. Jan Argonish through handcycling at least three marathons per year.

Military caregiver Elizabeth Wilkins was recognized for her journey as a military spouse and caregiver and her hours of volunteerism to veteran service organizations in Texas and with Hope For The Warriors.

After her husband was injured while serving in the U.S. Army and later medically retired, Wilkins applied for a Hope For The Warriors Military Spouse and Caregiver Scholarship and was awarded three times while she was pursuing a master’s family therapy program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake. Today, she is a family and marriage therapist working with children, adolescents, and adults and specializes in treating trauma, anxiety, and relational difficulties.

In addition, she has volunteered with Lone Star Veterans and currently is donating her time at Hope For The Warriors as a scholarship committee member. She has also assisted the Lone Survivor Foundation as a behavior consultant working at its therapeutic retreats.

The following individuals, corporations and organizations have stood beside Hope For The Warriors from inception and continue to serve military families.

This year’s Partners in Mission recipients included:

Vietnam veteran and Gold Star father John Phelps received the Harry Bridgwood Lifetime Service Award which is presented to a Vietnam-era veteran who has committed his or her life to serving the next generations of the warrior community.

Phelps’ son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, was killed in action in April 2004. The HBO® movie, Taking Chance, chronicled the journey of the Marine escort who brought Phelps home.

Phelps, an artist by trade, alongside of Hope For The Warriors spent several years recreating the iconic photo, ‘Hell House’ from Fallujah, Iraq in 2005 as a bronze monument. Together, they created the monument to honor those wounded in the line of duty and those who never returned home. The monument represents the ultimate price of battle, the spirit of brotherhood, and dedication known by service members and their families.

Today, two life-size monuments have been donated to the U.S. Marine Corps and sit in front of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at camps Lejeune and Pendleton, in addition to a smaller monument that is housed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia.

Stirling Colins received the Gary Sinise Community Service Award which is presented to an individual who puts his or her patriotism in action to serve military families and raise awareness of the needs of the military community.

For over 10 years, Collins has been an advocate for Hope For The Warriors in the New York region and volunteering for the nonprofit’s Military Spouse and Caregiver Scholarship Program.

In addition, he has organized a clay shoot at Orvis Sandanona in Millbrook, New York. The annual event raises funds for Hope For The Warriors while hosting service members and veterans supporting their rehabilitation and mental health. Altogether, his efforts have raised over half a million for Hope For The Warriors and its programs.

Hy-Vee received the Chairman’s Award for Corporate Citizenship which is presented to a group which not only highlights the benefits of veterans in the workplace but leads by example in enriching the lives of military families, both active-duty and retired.

Topping $1 million in donations to Hope For The Warriors in eight years, Hy-Vee is an employee-owned corporation operating more than 285 retail stores across eight Midwestern states. Each November, for the entire month, Hy-Vee hosts free breakfasts for veterans in addition to hosting its Hy-Vee Round Up, raising funds for three veteran service organizations, including Hope For The Warriors.

Georgia Van Gundy, executive vice president, chief administrative officer, chief customer officer, accepted the award for Hy-Vee.

For more information on Hope For The Warriors, visit hopeforthewarriors.orgFacebookTwitter or Instagram.

About Hope For The Warriors: Founded in 2006, Hope For The Warriors is a national nonprofit dedicated to restoring a sense of self, family and hope for post-9/11 veterans, service members and military families. Since its inception, Hope For The Warriors has served over 40,000 through a variety of support programs focused on health and wellness, sports and recreation and transition. One of the nonprofit’s first programs, Military Spouse and Caregiver Scholarships, has awarded 192 scholarships to caregivers and families of the fallen. For more information, visit hopeforthewarriors.orgFacebookTwitter or Instagram.