Tampa, Florida -- In early August, America lost 30 servicemen, including Navy SEALs and other Special Operations forces, when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.
The loss to their families is immeasurable. But one group--based in Tampa--is making one part of their lives a little easier. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation is providing the servicemen's children with a college education.
Melinda Petrignani is an advisor with the Warrior Foundation--helping guide the children of fallen soldiers into their college careers.
"I help them with financial questions, college questions and just try to be a mentor and friend to them," said Petrignani.
Not long ago, Petrignani was on the other end of the phone. Her father, Private First Class Michael Rudess, was an Army Ranger. He was killed in a training mission when Petrignani was just eight months old. She remembers getting phone calls from the Warrior Foundation while she was in high school--checking on how she was doing, what she was interested in, where she planned to go to college.
"It honestly felt natural, which is odd," said Petrignani. "But they were my extended family. And they cared so much it just felt natural for them to be calling to see how I was doing."
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation got its start in April, 1980. At the time, more than fifty Americans were being held hostage in Iran. A rescue mission, dubbed "Operation Eagle Claw," failed when a helicopter crashed into a C130 aircraft in the desert. Eight American servicemen were killed.
"Between them, they left behind 17 children," said retired Col. John Carney--president & CEO of the Warrior Foundation, who was part of Operation Eagle Claw. "We literally passed the hat back then 31 years ago and decided we would put these children through college."
Since then, the Warrior Foundation has grown--providing a full education for the children of any Special Forces member killed in combat or on a training mission. That includes tuition, room and board, textbooks and a computer and printer. 184 students have earned their degrees, 142 are in school right now and more than 600 children have been promised money.
Melinda Petrignani used her scholarship to go to DePaul University in Chicago--earning a degree in Business Administration. She joined the Warrior Foundation about a year ago and can't help but think about her own father every day.
"I do believe with my heart that he would be so proud of me," said Petrignani, fighting back tears. "Because there's nothing more than he'd want than for his daughter to succeed. So I know that he would be proud of me for graduating college and would be even more proud of the position I have here at the Warrior Foundation."
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation also provides funding for parents or spouses of injured soldiers to get them to their bedsides. They immediately overnight a check for $2000 to cover their traveling expenses.
The Warrior Foundation relies solely on contributions for its funding, and each year the number one donor has been the troops themselves--giving a million dollars out of their salaries just last year.
Click here if you'd like to learn more about contributing to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.