To Natale Szabo, military personnel are “heroes in shining camo.”
This high school senior and Lilac princess from Medical Lake is the first place winner of the 2009 National Voice of Democracy contest. She received the $30,000 T.C. Selman Memorial Scholarship Award.
Sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and its Ladies Auxiliary, the Voice of Democracy is an audio-essay scholarship competition. When Szabo saw this year’s theme, “Service and Sacrifice by America’s Veterans Benefit Today’s Youth by…,” she knew she had to enter. “It’s not really a hard topic,” she said. “You can look and see the benefits all around you.”
For Szabo those advantages are simple, everyday freedoms that most teens take for granted. “I don’t have to wear a veil over my head,” she said. “I can wear jeans to school instead of a dress.”
The larger liberties of freedom of religion, the right to vote, and the ability to voice political dissent have personal meaning for her as well.
“My father’s family escaped from Hungary in the middle of the revolution against the Soviets,” she said. Her dad was born in a mule-drawn wagon as the family fled to Austria. In 1956 they immigrated to the United States.
But more than her personal history, her daily interaction with children of military personnel prompted her gratitude and inspired her award-winning essay. “Veterans Day is a huge event at our school,” she said. “We don’t get a three-day weekend. More than half of the students have parents who are members of the United States military.”
She’s quick to point out that what most citizens consider “rights” she considers “privileges paid for in blood, tears and pure determination.”
Earlier this month, Szabo flew to Washington, D.C., courtesy of the VFW. She read her essay at the awards luncheon and visited several national landmarks. “The Holocaust Museum was especially moving and hard for me,” she said.
Her entry was chosen out of 75,000 essays, and she is the first national winner from Washington. “I can’t express how supportive the district VFW has been for me,” she said. “It may not be politically correct to say this, but even if people are against the war they are for the troops. That’s what the VFW is all about.”
With the excitement of the trip behind her, Szabo is enjoying her duties as a Lilac princess.
Her win was no surprise to Karene Garlich-Loman, vice president of royalty for the Spokane Lilac Festival. She said, “I knew the minute I met Natale that she was an extraordinary individual. Natale’s speech is a perfect example of what makes Natale so special.”
Szabo plans to use her scholarship to attend Washington State University, where she’ll pursue a degree in broadcast communications. “My dream job is to be an overseas news correspondent,” she said. “I want to go to the places other people are afraid to go to.”
She credits her courage to her parents. “My mom and dad have the most amazing moral compasses,” she said. Sadly, Szabo’s mother didn’t live to see her daughter’s recent accomplishments. She died of breast cancer in 2007. “I miss my mom a lot,” Szabo admitted.
Still, her father’s reaction to the scholarship win delighted her. “When I told him I won $30,000, he started crying,” she said. “I’m happy for my dad and for the people I made proud.”
To read Szabo’s essay go to www.vfw.org/PR/Scholarships/ VODWinnerScript2009.pdf