Educating the Children of Fallen Warriors: Speaks to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) provides scholarships and support to the families of fallen special operations personnel. made a donation to SOWF, and we recently caught up with the organization to learn more about how it increases college access for military families across the country.

By Megan Driscoll

melinda petrignani

A Special Operations Warrior Foundation Success Story

Melinda Petrignani's father, Army Ranger Private First Class Michael Rudess, was killed in an accident during a training exercise in 1986. Melinda was only eight months old.

After her father died, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation built a relationship with Melinda. In her own words: 'They help me have a better understanding of our country's special operations units, and what father's service meant to this country. They help me to grow and make connections with other people who have also been through similar experiences as mine. More recently they have helped me tell my story; I have had the chance to let others know what their donations mean to me and so many other families. My father isn't here to support me, but the warrior foundation is in so many ways.'

In 2008, Melinda graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Melinda was recently hired by the Foundation as a financial aid officer and student mentor, and she is currently pursuing her options for obtaining a master's degree while working. Melinda is the first scholarship recipient to join the Foundation as an employee, and she has years of great experience to bring to future students.

special operations warrior foundation recently spoke with Wendy Bourland, Communication and Events Manager for the Foundation, about the history and mission of the SOWF. Please tell our readers how the Special Operations Warrior Foundation got started.

Wendy Bourland: The Special Operations Warrior Foundation was founded in 1980, after a daring rescue attempt of 53 Americans being held hostage in Iran went tragically wrong. Eight military personnel were killed and one severely incapacitated when a helicopter collided with a C-130 transport aircraft. The three Marines and five airmen who lost their lives left behind 17 children.

What started as a battlefield promise to take care of a fallen brother's children if anything should happen to him has grown into one of the nation's most reputable nonprofit organizations that supports the families of fallen and wounded special operations personnel.

The Foundation's president, Air Force Col. (Ret.) John T. Carney Jr., was on the Iranian hostage rescue mission and has more than 30 years of military experience.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation provides two primary programs:

  1. Full college educations to the children of special operations personnel who lose their lives in combat or training. Funding is provided for tuition, books, fees, room and board, as well as a computer and printer.
  2. Immediate financial assistance to the families of severely wounded special operations personnel. This stipend allows a family to travel to be at a loved one's bedside during recovery.

Whom do we serve? Approximately 60,000 military special operations and support personnel stationed in units throughout the United States and around the world; and their families. Can you tell us more about the scholarship program and how it's funded?

WB: SOWF is committed to providing scholarship grants to more than 800 children. These children are the survivors of over 700 special operations personnel who have given their lives in service to their country.

In 2009, SOWF provided a total of $2.7 million in scholarship grants, educational programs and financial counseling to 118 students at colleges and universities across the country.

With more than 100 children eligible each year for college, a professional actuarial corporation has determined that in order to fulfill its mission the Foundation will need $76 million in the years to come.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, SOWF relies on donations from individuals and companies. We do not receive funding from state governments or the U.S. government.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation participates in numerous fundraising events, included annual fundraising dinners, golf tournaments, relay runs and other sports events and much more. Many of these events would not be possible without the generosity and support of numerous volunteers across the country.

We are extremely proud of the fifth consecutive four-star rating bestowed upon us in 2010 by Charity Navigator. Only five percent of U.S. charities have achieved this status. How many children have been able to utilize the SOWF scholarships? What sort of degree programs have they pursued or are they pursuing?

WB: To date, some 160 children of fallen special operations warriors have graduated from college or vocational school. Our scholarship recipients have attended community colleges, four-year universities, technical schools and military academies. Our students' graduation rate is 98%. Can you tell us more about SOWF's ongoing support services to the families of fallen special operations warriors and how they help children earn college degrees?

WB: One thing that differentiates us from other scholarship foundations is our proactive approach to getting our students into college.

We reach out to families a few weeks after we are notified by the U.S. Special Operations Command of a training or operational fatality. Once a connection is made with a family, we stay in touch throughout the child's formative years via birthday cards, graduation cards and invitations to events across the country.

In addition, we have a school psychologist on our staff who assists families and students who have learning disabilities, academic challenges and other counseling needs. will be making a contribution to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Can you share with our readers how the funds will be used?

WB: The funds will go toward scholarships for the children of fallen special operators. We currently have 500 children, some still in diapers, who will be eligible for SOWF scholarships when they are college-age. Many of our readers may be interested in the mission of the SOWF. Please tell them how they can get involved with your organization, via volunteering, donating or…?

WB: We are a small organization located near MacDill AFB, home to the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Foundation could not exist without the assistance of many people, from every walk of life, who coordinate or participate in fundraising events to support SOWF.

To learn more about us, including volunteer opportunities and ways to donate, visit our website, While there, you can check out in detail the services we provide, read news articles and sign up for our 'Warrior Link' e-newsletter. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and your mission of making education accessible to the children of fallen military warriors.

WB: As long as special operations forces are called upon by our country to take on dangerous missions, these elite military people will willingly put themselves in harm's way to protect our freedoms. This means there will be an ongoing need for the Foundation's services.

We feel that the least we can do for the brave and loyal special operators who make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation is to ensure their children get a good education so they can become self-supporting and productive citizens.

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