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Diana Muralles-Garcia expected her husband home for the Fourth of July in 2005. He was finishing his second tour in Afghanistan — he had already served three in Iraq — with the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, fulfilling a dream of studying medicine by working as an Army medic.

He was coming to surprise his daughter, Anna, for her 10th birthday.

But on June 28, Muralles was assigned a rescue mission to remote, eastern mountains in Afghanistan, where an elite team of four Navy SEALs had gone missing. Muralles took the spot of an injured medic at the last minute and boarded the Chinook helicopter, which was later brought down by enemy fire, killing all 16 aboard. Only one of the SEALs they went to rescue survived (a film about the mission, “The Lone Survivor”, will be released next year).

It’s a heartbreaking story, and there are thousands of others like it.

But a similarly tragic situation led to something transcendent: Sgt. William Delaney Gibbs was among those killed during the December 1989 to January 1990 invasion of Panama, named Operation Just Cause, leaving behind his wife and their unborn daughter. David Kim had served with Gibbs in the 7th Infantry Division and later connected with his daughter, Delaney, as she was struggling to pay for college. The family’s story inspired Kim to create the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, which helps those like Delaney and Anna receive quality educations without incurring debt.

Taking on a Large, Expensive Challenge

Since 2002, the foundation has assisted nearly 400 children whose parents were killed in active duty, amounting to nearly $6 million in grants so far. The foundation enrolls about 300 to 350 children in its program each year, but there are more than 15,000 American children who have suffered such losses, and the foundation is trying to find them, says Executive Director John Coogan.

That’s one of the greatest challenges: Privacy laws can make it difficult to find these children, and sometimes the family has moved away from the military network following the death of a parent. The average age of a child in the foundation’s database is 10½ years old, but many eligible students don’t find out about CFPF until they’ve already started or finished college.

While the goal is to work with these children well before their college years, the foundation tries to help in any way it can, including paying student loans of those who have already graduated. To qualify for a grant, students must be eligible for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and must submit a DD Form 1300 Report of Casualty, verifying the parent’s death. Once the student receives the grant, he or she has to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to continue receiving assistance.

Education Costs More Than Tuition

Matthew Spellacy was a baby when his father, Capt. David Michael Spellacy, was killed during Operation Desert Storm. The Marine’s plane was shot down in Kuwait Feb. 25, 1991, while supporting 1st Tank Battalion, leaving the small-town Ohio family without a father.

Spellacy was already a few years into studying environmental engineering at Ohio State University when he found out about the CFPF. A variety of scholarships, grants and student loans had helped him pay for his education until that point, but CFPF has made a huge difference for him.

The foundation works to bridge the gap between existing benefits and scholarships for children of military personnel killed in action to help cover the full cost of college, going beyond the surface-level expenses of tuition and fees.

“Any kind of reasonable life cost that would add to my debt, they were more than happy to help with,” Spellacy says. The foundation is also helping him pay the student loans he needed before enrolling with CFPF.

The grants can be similar to one-time scholarships but are more like ongoing financial relationships. It all depends on individual need.

For some students, that can mean tuition, books and housing. For others, it includes car insurance and transportation costs, because without the car, the student couldn’t attend class. A grant may cover groceries, a computer, education abroad and some extracurricular activities.

“Each student is kind of a unique case for us,” Coogan says. The foundation requires receipts for all expenses, and it reviews them individually to determine whether or not they directly influence the student’s ability to get the education they need. As long as the student meets the GPA and Veterans Affairs qualifications, there aren’t many firm restrictions on what the foundation will cover. Everything is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Coogan says.

Post-graduate studies are among the few things the foundation doesn’t cover. Spellacy is getting his master’s in environmental engineering, and even though CFPF isn’t paying for it, he says they were part of the process.

“People at Children of Fallen Patriots helped me find other scholarships more specific to pilots of the Marine Corps” Spellacy says. “They pointed me in the right direction, and I was able to find two that are helping me with tuition.” Spellacy also has research fellowships helping cover his graduate school expenses.

Meanwhile, his younger brother, who was born right after his father died, has received assistance as he earns his degree at Ohio University. Spellacy also has an older sister, but she had finished school by the time their mother heard about the foundation.

Helping Past, Present & Future Students

As millions of Americans struggling with student loan debt understand, obtaining a post-secondary education can be incredibly expensive. While some can fund their education through scholarships, grants, savings or the good fortune of enough money, many students need to borrow to fund their educations.

Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation wants to make sure those who lost a parent to military service aren’t among those borrowers. Its goal is to grant about $3 million to students in 2014. The goal for 2013 is $2.8 million, and it awarded about $1.8 million in 2012. Based on the foundation’s projections, they will want to grant about $110 million during the next decade, Coogan says. The foundation’s money comes from private donations and corporate partners, and the goal is to raise roughly $10 million a year by 2018.

It may seem small compared to the country’s $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, but the foundation says it hopes to make a difference for future, current and past students, to the best of its ability.

The average gap between other scholarships and full education costs is about $32,000 among the foundation’s students, Coogan said. It has covered as little as $500 for one student’s books and as much as $115,000 for another student’s education at an expensive school. The foundation doesn’t play a part in a student’s school choice, because Coogan says they don’t want the student to feel limited by money in any way. CFPF students have attended private and public four-year institutions, community colleges, trade schools, art schools and any educational institution that unlocks these students’ futures.

That mission has reached children of Vietnam-era veterans, adult students who couldn’t previously afford school and youngsters preparing for their college dreams. As soon as the relationship has been established between the foundation and the family, CFPF will start helping that student work toward higher education, whether that’s through tutoring, SAT or ACT prep classes or college application fees.

Diana Muralles-Garcia says she is especially grateful for the foundation’s help as her daughter Anna started to look at schools. Muralles-Garcia was born and educated in Honduras, and Anna is the first in her family to attend college, so the process was completely unfamiliar to the family.

Anna is in her first semester at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort studying communication. Muralles-Garcia’s voice is full of pride when she says Anna has already registered for her next semester, and it wouldn’t be doable without the help.

“Whenever I have a question about anything, they are there for me,” Muralles-Garcia says. She had applied for several scholarships she found through her husband’s unit, and she said CFPF was first to respond. Her son, Dominic, turns 13 in February and is already on track to receive help from the foundation.

She says Anna’s studies are going well, and Muralles-Garcia says she is amazed by her daughter’s experiences every time she comes home from college to visit.

“I cannot wait until I see her graduate and knowing that my son is going to be next.”

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