Bianca Strzalkowski, Military Spouse of the Year

Written By Jennifer Baron

Bianca Strzalkowski represents more than a million men and women nationwide as the 2011 Military Spouse of the Year. Her life in Fuquay-Varina with Gunnery Sgt. Ron Strzalkowski and their three sons is a living example of the Marine Corps official and unofficial mottos: Semper Fi (Always Faithful), and Semper Gumby (Always Flexible).

“I’m a very regular person. … I’ve never won anything in my entire life,” exclaimed the 31-year-old mother of three.

But now this small-town New Jersey girl’s life is anything but regular. Tea at the White House with first lady Michelle Obama, dinner with the commandant of the Marine Corps and his wife (the biggest honor of her life), meetings with senators, appearances on CNN and Fox News … the list goes on and on. But since Strzalkowski was voted Marine Corps Spouse of the Year in February and then chosen as the Military Spouse of the Year in May, she has also heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of military spouses who have shared their stories and sought advice. She says it is those people who are driving her to make the most of her reign as spouse of the year.

“I want by May 2012 for them to say, ‘I’m glad she represented us. We got something out of this.’ It really is an opportunity to improve the quality of life for the generation of spouses to come after me,” she said.

Finding Her Passion
When her high school sweetheart showed her his enlistment papers she had no idea what that would mean for her future. As a young military wife and mother she described herself as living in the quiet background. Then she was invited to a meeting for the Family Readiness Program and the spark ignited.

“I had never volunteered for anything in my entire life (to that point). And now it has changed my entire life. The entire center of my universe, besides my family, is the Family Readiness Program,” stated Strzalkowski.

Just as the Force Readiness Program gives troops the tools they need to succeed in combat, the Family Readiness Program gives families the tools they need to succeed in military life.

But a 2008 transfer plucked the Strzalkowskis from base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville and plopped them into a very civilian Wake county as part of a recruiting unit. With no active military installation, family or friends, and a colicky newborn, Strzalkowski felt isolated and depressed.

“For seven months, I was here and hadn’t heard from anyone. I was used to this strong base support and I thought, ‘This isn’t right, something has to change.’”

So with base approval, she changed things. She brought the Family Readiness Program to life for independent, or off-base, military families. A unit-specific newsletter now brings spouses scattered across the state together for camaraderie and resource information. She also started a meals delivery program. New unit moms in every corner of the state have opened their front doors to find Strzalkowski standing there with a home cooked Italian feast, just so they would feel welcome. She holds spouse workshops and recently developed a program called Independent Dependent, designed to help military spouses set and achieve their own goals.

Strzalkowski’s efforts have generated such excitement in the Marine Corps she now travels coast to coast presenting to units who want to learn about and replicate the North Carolina program.

“I literally have such a passion for it, it keeps me up at night, thinking of what different programs we can do.”

MSOY Bucket List
Her biggest goal is expanding military spouse education opportunities.

“I, myself, have been in college for a decade. I should have a PhD by now,” she chuckled. “I believe that we should have the same (educational) benefits as service members.”

With her newfound credentials, she has been meeting with both Sen. Kay Hagan and the U.S. Department of Education and believes by next May some version of a tuition assistance program for spouses will be available.

Her second goal is no less important, but possibly tougher: finding new ways to bridge the gap between the military community and the civilian community. She laments what she sees as “misguided priorities” among civilians who appear to take their freedom for granted.

“I see such a great sacrifice from military families, and I don’t think they get it. Yes, we chose the life. But because we chose the life, you don’t have to be drafted into the life,” explained Strzalkowski.

Fortunately, she has heard from hundreds of civilians who want to support the troops with more than lip service. She is also getting timely support from first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces Initiative, which calls on every American to help support our military families.

“It’s such an honorable job. I mean, service to country — you just can’t get any more honorable that that,” stressed Strzalkowski. “That’s what drives me.”

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