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Jefferson Award winner, January 2020: Susan Fochs

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MADISON (WKOW) -- When she was just a teenager, Susan Fochs started a movement for service members and veterans. 

"My father is a 100% disabled Marine Corps veteran, so he has been fully disabled for my whole life," she says.

Her father served in Vietnam, but came home with lifelong injuries.  

"It's something he didn't like talking about when we were growing up. It's something he really tried to hide."

But it's something that shaped her.

"He had a lot of different ailments and my brother and I would always go with him to doctor's appointments, to therapy appointments."

Living through that experience inspired Susan to help other service members and veterans. At just 18 years old, she founded the nonprofit Operation Not Alone.

"Never alone, never forget and those are our two main messages. Especially for active duty service members that they're not alone in anything that they're feeling and the mental health battles that they're going through, especially on deployment. They're not alone, there's always things that they can do to reach out. And for our veterans, it's that we will never forget them and they will never be forgotten for their service."

Over the past seven years, Susan and her team have sent hundreds of care packages to troops serving all over the world.

"Every care package has a 2-yard fleece blanket specific to their branch of the military and then we try to personalize it to them as much as possible, their favorite foods, the things they're missing from home the most. "

Hannah Ostertag is an Army National Guard veteran and got a care package of her own.

"Receiving a care package can be so meaningful to them and remind them that there are people that truly care about them back at home, so they have something to look forward to when they do finally come home."

"Every year on Veteran's Day we send cheer packages which is specific to veterans," says Susan. "This year we were very excited we finally hit veterans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that received our cheer packages."

They also visit vets in nursing homes around the holidays to deliver custom blankets and travel to schools and groups to give "Who is Your Hero" presentations. 

"That talks about our services, the nonprofit in the Madison area, making a difference in your community. Especially when it's elementary school students, what it means to be a service member, what it means to go to war."

Susan's organization continues to grow.

"We, a year ago, launched our Girl Scout patch and programming, so Girl Scouts all across the U.S. have been earning our ONA patch. We also launched a college intern program as well."

Susan spends about 30 hours a week running Operation Not Alone out of her apartment and she's enlisted the help of about 50 volunteers.

"Susan is so hard working," said Hannah. "She has a heart of gold. She's open minded and she's willing to help anyone that walks through her door. So, when there is a vet in need, or if there's someone just looking to give back to their community, she's sending them a care package, she's inviting them to volunteer for her organization, or she's welcoming them into her life."

Dedicating her life to service, has made Susan's father proud.

"I think the cool part for him is he's been able to reach out to a lot of military members and a lot of Gold Star family members too who've lost their children in service," said Susan. "He gets to connect with those people and they've created a little community of their own which has helped him a lot with his healing."

If you'd like to send a care package to a loved one or set up a presentation through Operation Not Alone, click here for more information.

Amber Noggle

Anchor, 27 News at 5, 6 and 10

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