#116: Educating the Children of Fallen Patriots – Development Officer Jeanette McMahon

Monday September 11, 2023

What happens to the children of our service members when they make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedom and American way of life? Who makes sure they’re taken care of, have a bright future and are afforded every opportunity to be successful in life? 

In this episode, Fran Racioppi dives into the incredible work of Children of Fallen Patriots, an organization dedicated to providing educational support to the children of fallen service members. Fran is joined by Fallen Patriots’ Development Officer, Colonel Jeanette McMahon from Pepisco Headquarters to celebrate the 2023 culmination of Rolling Remembrance, Pepsico’s cross-country journey to honor the American Flag, the heroes who defend it, and the children who are left behind.  

Jeanette and her children are themselves the Gold Star Family of LTC Michael McMahon. She shares with Fran their “growth of grief” as the emotional toll of loss changes as children grow up.  Jeanette was a West Point graduate and one of the first women in US Army Aviation. Today, she works to ensure every child of our fallen has access to an education. 

Learn more about Fallen Patriots and get involved in the education of our next generation of leaders. 

Read the full episode transcription here and learn more on The Jedburgh Podcast Website. Subscribe to us and follow @jedburghpodcast on all social media. Watch the full video version on YouTube.

Listen to the podcast here


Educating the Children of Fallen Patriots – Development Officer Jeanette McMahon

Jeanette, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

We’re at Pepsi headquarters. It’s amazing to be here.

This is awesome and beautiful.

We went and experienced the Rolling Remembrance culmination, the 60th stop. It’s important to quantify what is Rolling Remembrance. We’ve got the truck behind us. It’s wrapped in the Rolling Remembrance insignia and it also has the logo of Children of Fallen Patriots, the organization that is near and dear to your heart for many different reasons that we’re going to get into. I want to talk about the Fallen Patriots and start there.

What is the organization? We’re then going to get back to Rolling Remembrance and talk about your story. Let’s start there. The mission of Children of Fallen Patriots is to provide education to those children who have lost a parent in the line of duty. We can quantify line of duty in a number of different ways, whether that be killed in action or illness training. There are a lot of different variations but talk about Fallen Patriots, its mission, vision, and why that’s so important.

There’s such a need. We all know that soldiers are lost in war. When soldiers are lost in war, there are those left behind, the wives and children. I lost my husband and I had three children. I’m one of many thousands. We want to honor the memory of those lost by taking care of their children in a manner that those who are lost would want to take care of their own. They would want the best for their children. They would want to make sure that they had opportunities.

[bctt tweet=”We want to honor the memory of those lost by taking care of their children the way they would.” username=”talentwargroup”]

Children of Fallen Patriots provides that debt-free college education for those students who have lost a parent in the line of duty. That could be a combat death or a service-related illness. Suicide is more we’re seeing. All of those children that are affected by that have the opportunity. They get some VA benefits but that doesn’t nearly cover what they need. We found that there’s about a $25,000 gap for every student. In 4-year college, it’s $25,000 and we cover that.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

Plus, we also want to make sure that these kids can dream big. That’s what their parents would want. I know my husband wanted that for his sons. If a child can get into a great school, we want to give them that opportunity. We don’t want them to have to limit it because of funding. We will resource them. We have kids from all the states who go to all types of colleges. We need kids in every area of service so we fund kids who go to service-related schools and technical schools. My oldest son is a mechanic and he went to a trade school. There are lots of opportunities out there.

Let’s talk about some of the numbers. Twenty-five thousand kids over the last several years have lost a parent. We’re talking about all branches of the military and services. That’s an incredible number.

It’s huge. There’s no central database for who those kids are. You can’t give out that information. We and the government want to keep that confidential. We’ve gotten better by reaching out to those families early on and saying, “We have some vetted organizations, Children of Fallen Patriots being one. Can we share your information?” That gives us the opportunity to reach out to these families early on to establish a relationship with them so they know that we’re available when the time comes for their kids to go to school.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.The organization has a why. I had the honor of being invited by you and everybody at Fallen Patriots to the Third Annual New York City Gala. I didn’t know what to expect. In full transparency, I thought it was going to be a small group of people in a restaurant. I walked into an event with 700 people but my number was 703. I’m fairly certain that by nature, there were maybe 1 or 2 more than that because I went to get my ticket the night before. It was phenomenal. The number was $2.8 million that was raised at the event.

I have not been to a lot of events in New York City over the last couple of years. None of us have because of COVID. Everything’s starting to come back over here as everyone returns to the city. I was getting ready to go and my wife said, “Who do you know?” I said, “I have no idea who I know.” I may not know anybody because I thought it was a small thing. I knew no less than 30 people who over the years I’ve worked with, I’ve met in different things. People from all different industries and all walks of life were there in that room to support this organization.

It started when David Kim and his wife, Cynthia, started the organization. I had the chance to speak with both of them. They’re amazing people. David deployed to Panama in the Army and lost his very good friend, Sergeant Delaney Gibbs, who was killed in Panama a couple of days before Christmas but months before the birth of his daughter. That sparked this idea. What was it? What did David say to himself, “I’ve got to do something about this?” Many years ago, he said, “I got to do it.”

It always weighed on him knowing that this gal was growing up and what opportunities would she have. Would she be taken care of? That was important to him. It was right after 9/11 when he started thinking about this. He said, “This is the time to start something because there are going to be more families in this situation.”

Colonel Jack Jacobs Medal of Honor winner was there. He was in the ceremony. We had the honor to listen to him speak, which is always exciting. You can listen to him on NBC and MSNBC but it’s great when he gets up in this kind of crowd. He talked about education and the organization that David and Cynthia both talked about being the greatest gift that we can give. Colonel Jacobs talked about the development of the next generation and why that’s so important to where we are as a nation. Our freedom has to be protected by an educated population.

When we look at these numbers and we talked about the gap and there are numbers out there, 625 million, and when you add up all the gap for each one of these students, the organization has deployed $69 million to support 3,000 scholars. Talk about those 3,000. There were 21 of them there at the Gala. Abby Whitmer was up here speaking about her father, a Navy F-18 Pilot. It’s the impact that it has on these children.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.I loved the way Colonel Jacobs mentioned that the future of our country relies on our youth. We all think about it. That’s true. Our children are going to be the ones who are going to take on from us. We want to make sure that they’re well-educated. We want to put our hope in their dreams and aspirations. Educating them well is the way that we do that. We’re having companies like PepsiCo jump on board and say, “We believe in you.” As Cynthia Kim mentioned, she said they started in their kitchen when they first started.

My three sons were one of the first children who were some recipients in the early days when we worked out of their kitchen. Now, my children are successful young men because they’ve had Children of Fallen Patriots scholarships. They got emotional and financial support from Children of Fallen Patriots. I look to them for the future. They’re going to be the people that make us proud of who we are as a country.

There’s a financial impact here too. We’re going to talk about your story but 53% of surviving spouses make less than $50,000 at the time of the loss of their spouse.

Ninety-eight percent of the ones left behind are women. We wind up having these single moms with their children. A lot of these women were following their husbands through their careers in the military and having to go to different places and move from a school to a deployment to back to another school. It’s hard to establish your career where you’re bringing in a lot of money. A lot of these were either stay-at-home moms or worked in jobs where they moved from place to place. They’re not making a lot of money.

These are servant-minded families. Their parents were in the military and even the children are raised that way. A lot of these kids think, “I shouldn’t go to college because I don’t want to burden my mom. I need to go out and start making money to help her.” Maybe there are other siblings involved. A lot of times we reach out to these kids and moms so we can say, “We want to support you so that you can reach your dreams.”

I introduced you as Colonel Jeanette McMahon, full bird colonel. You retired at 27 years and 15 of them in Operational Aviation Units Chinook pilot.Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

It was very fun and exciting.

If that helicopter’s not leaking, get out.

That’s what they used to say about Chinooks. What was great about this Pepsi event was that the flag was flown by the 101st. That was where I met my husband. We were both assigned to the 101st. We were both aviators. He was a Cav pilot. I was a Chinook pilot. We met in church one Sunday. We went running that day, dancing a week later, and married within a year. It was a great love story.

You also went to West Point class of ‘83. Talk about your drive to serve. Why did you make that decision? Especially in the early ‘80s and those early days of integration of women into the academy.

When I was a freshman, the women who were the seniors were the first class. There weren’t a lot of them out there leading the way. Certainly, when I was in high school, I didn’t know anybody. I was an all-around generalist. I did pretty well in school. I like sports. I was involved in the band and Girl Scouts. I like camping. The military seemed like a great fit. I could do a little bit of all of that like little drill, ceremony, and camping. I didn’t know about wearing camouflage all over my face but it was exciting.

I had a twin brother and younger siblings. I didn’t want to burden my parents with college costs myself. West Point seemed like a great option and a great reason to serve. I’ll tell you that when you’re standing on the parade field, that first day, you’ve gotten issued your uniform that day and you’ve learned how to march, you’re in that parade and you’re on the plane, you realize this is something way bigger than you. This is history and a legacy. This is an incredible place to be. It’s very patriotic. I was in that first step on the plane.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

I was in OCS after basic training. They indoctrinate you very well.

It’s an incredible transformation. My youngest son enlisted in the Army and went to the engineer basic training a few summers ago. It was right when we were starting to reintroduce training after COVID. I was so impressed by the way they handled that whole situation and the training that he did. The way you could go on Facebook pages and see what they were doing in their training was impressive.

For him, he saw such an incredible diversity within the people who enlisted with him, how these people were gaining a foothold in life by joining the Army, and how much they gained from using the Army as a stepping stone to life. It was an incredible experience for him to see that. From an OCS perspective, that’s a great perspective to do an Army career.

They do it in 12 or 14 weeks.

It’s a quick course.

Let’s talk about your husband Michael. You mentioned how you met. It was an instant love story but on November 27th, 2004, he was killed in action. You were left with three kids and also serving as well. We always talk about spouses who are left who also don’t have a duty and are in command of soldiers. Michael, Thomas, Ricky, and yourself are there. Talk about the moment when you found out that you lost them.

It was a tough day. We had a great weekend. It was right after Thanksgiving. Mike had reached out to us and we’d had a phone call, one of those rare phone calls from the satellite from Afghanistan.

In ’04, you didn’t have all the infrastructure.

He was commanding a unit too so he made sure that all his soldiers always got to call home first. We didn’t hear from him that often but luckily, we all got to speak to him that day. He called his dad, sisters, and everyone in the family. It was great. I had decided I was going to put up some decorations in front of the house. We were living in Hawaii at the time and it was beautiful out. My youngest son came out and he wanted to go swimming. I turned around and saw these car doors shut. We were on a quiet street. I looked and all of a sudden, there were these Army guys walking up to my house. You disbelieve that it’s happening.

In class A’s?

Yes. I thought they were going to somebody else’s house. They’re walking up my driveway and then I realize the reality of this is happening. I wanted to be optimistic, “Perhaps he’s just injured and I need to get to launch stool.” I immediately said, “Is he dead or not?” These poor guys haven’t even gotten up the driveway yet. They said, “Let’s talk a little bit. Let us tell you the story.”

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.At that point, they didn’t know he was on a plane that was mission in action. They had taken off from one end of Afghanistan to the other. He was in the back. Unfortunately, the plane wound up and they didn’t make it. Everyone on board was killed in this accident. You go into automatic survival mode, especially as a mom with kids. You have to get them through it. Life has to remain somewhat normal going to school and moving forward if you can. You’re in that daze. You just function.

You and I had a chance to talk at the dinner and one of the things that you mentioned to me and that also has been brought up by a lot of the children as they got up and spoke as Abby spoke here is that children have to grieve at all different points in their lives. Your children were young but every time they go into that different phase of their life, it processes differently.

It’s a growth of grief if that makes sense. We all know those stages of grief. You deny that it’s happening like I did. I didn’t believe they were walking up to my door. You’re angry about it, sad, and then you accept it. Children go through those stages but their brain develops and is able to understand it at a different cognitive level.

The youngest was 4 when it happened but when he was 16, he had all these memories of his dad that were created from the stories that he heard or the videos that he saw. He had to re-grieve it because he’s a young teenager. As a twenty-year-old young man, he also had to go through that process again. It was a struggle for all of them. The moms are going through this extended grieving because they’ve got to support their kids through it. It is difficult. You’re not just going to get over it. People acknowledge that and that’s understandable. For children, it does last a lifetime.

[bctt tweet=”For children, extended grief really does last a lifetime.” username=”talentwargroup”]

I spent 13 years and deployed 5 times. I still talk about things every once in a while with my wife and she’ll be like, “You’ve never mentioned that before. You experienced that?” “Yeah, I did.” When I was in, I had only the last few years when we had a daughter. For the majority of my time, we didn’t have kids but we only had one. We have two young ones now.

That’s awesome. Congratulations.

At 42, it’s a lot more painful than I remember it being at 32. One of the things that’s been super eye-opening to me and at times as I’ve sat and listened to people talk is I find myself emotional. I got home late and went into my kids’ room. I looked at them and was like, “What if I wasn’t here?” In the morning, the two little ones were up. I got up every morning and helped my oldest one get out of school.

Even though she can help herself, it always makes me feel good to make her lunch and get yelled at by her because she’s thirteen so inevitably I did something wrong. She still leaves and I go, ”It is what it is.” All I could think about was, “How I was going to come here? You’re going to have this conversation.” I found myself getting emotional at times because it was like, “How can you not be here with these little kids? What would life be like if I wasn’t there?”

There are certain times when it hits me. For years, I could not watch the commercials where they showed the soldier coming home or the surprise reveal when the soldier is in the stadium and his family runs out. He doesn’t expect them to be there. Those were the hardest to watch because we didn’t get the homecoming. That was hard. You’re seeing that year after year.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

My oldest son got married. It was such a wonderful ceremony. For him, it was so important to set up a chair. He had his dad’s jacket and his Stetson on the chair. He and his wife brought a flower over. It’s important for them to remember their dad in a way that they’re not going to ever forget. They’re always going to include his memory they certainly wish they could share but they also know that we’re living and they’re living and they have to live it well. That’s what their dad would want.

My son has a great relationship with his wife’s dad. I remarried and he’s got a great relationship with my husband now. It’s so wonderful because my current husband is so good about letting me talk about it, live it, and know that it’s a part of me and my kids that will always be there. He gave my three boys a Christmas present. He gave them each a Stetson of their own that he outfitted with all their dad’s insignia.

There’s this concept of dealing with the loss and having to grieve the loss but also at the same time, being thankful for what you had and for the experiences that you had with somebody before you lost them.

Holding onto those memories is important. Also, having the pictures and the memorial cabinet in the house. Being able to talk about it and mention it at times is important.

Let’s talk about Rolling Remembrance. We’ve got the truck behind us. I mentioned that this was the 60th out of 60 stops. A huge shout out to PepsiCo here for not only their support to Fallen Patriots but also for allowing us to set up here and keep the truck here. We had to fend off the team here from cleaning everything up for a little while.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

We’re keeping the truck for this amazing backdrop here at Pepsi headquarters. The flag was 30 days on the road and it started in Seattle. I want you to tell the story of the flag where it made its way here to New York. What is Rolling Remembrance? Why has that become a staple for PepsiCo and their support to Fallen Patriots?

What’s great is the flag was originally flown by the brother of Jim Ferrell, who a friend of his was working here, and her brother was deployed. They would send Pepsi care packages to the soldiers. The soldiers to thank them flew this flag on a combat mission and then sent it to the headquarters. They had it in the headquarters building. Jim tells the story about how he was thinking one day when he wasn’t part of the VALOR program for Pepsi to give back to veterans. He thought, “How can we involve more of the people in Pepsi?” Pepsi is such a large company and it’s so distributed across the country.

He passed the flag in the headquarters building and he’s a transportation guy. He said, “I’ll bet you, we have the resources to shuttle relay this flag around the country.” He mentioned it to a few people. The ball got rolling so to speak, no pun intended. As he says, it was to remember those that were lost and that was the key thing. Rolling Remembrance was born.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

It was great for me because I flew out to Seattle for the kickoff. I was at the beginning and the end. What was great about the beginning was that it stopped at 60 places across the country. It drives from state to state, stopping at different PepsiCo in different locations. Each place has an event and the drivers change out. All the drivers are veterans. Every time they do a fundraiser, each of these events goes into the big pot. In the end, they donate that all to Children of Fallen Patriots.

In the first year, they had $25,000 that they donated. In 2023, it’s $300,000. If you add that up over 9 years, you’re $2 million. It’s incredible what they’ve done. How many of our kids that are supporting is wonderful? We have a great ratio. We have such a generous board of directors that pays our admin costs that we can take nearly all those proceeds and it all goes towards the children’s scholarships and funding.

It’s 96%.

We have a great record of that.

It’s not just tuition. College tuition is astronomical but so is room and board, the cost of books, and everything else. There’s an important fact here too that there is a tremendous amount of support that is being given to the scholars in terms of the other financial support that they need to live and go to school.

We can cover room and board. The great thing is that it’s financial and that’s huge. All of the folks that we hire are scholarship administrators, gold star kids themselves, and have received scholarships from us. There is an immediate connection between scholarship administrators and the students that we’re supporting. Generally, they don’t even talk about it but they know. They create these bonds, relationships, and networks amongst themselves that are supportive. We’ve been doing this for many years. We have kids that are 15, 20, and 10 years into it and are starting to mentor some of our younger kids graduating. It’s great to see this process grow upon itself.

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

I want to talk about the need here for a second because we have to look at the timeline. You referenced a curve. It’s easy to sit here and say, “Where are we going to go from here? The military is not in declared combat. We don’t have forces deployed all over the world.”

Why do we need the support? How many kids are already in the pipeline based on prior losses? Some of these kids were babies when they lost their parents. We have this pipeline. We keep their ages in our system so we can track when the need will occur during their lifetime and how our program will be affected by that. We have many years still.

We have 12,000 kids in our system. We know there are 25,000 out there. This is a great way to get the word out. PepsiCo is such a huge company that touches so many lives. If people know about Children of Fallen Patriots and what we can do for these children who are in a position to receive our benefits, then we want to get that word out.

How do you get involved? What’s the goal here over 2024 for the organization?

Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.We’ve continued to grow each year. When I first saw the organization, we were working out of the Kim’s Kitchen and now we have a full staff of employees. If we can continue to increase the number of scholarships we give each year, that would be great. We’ve been lucky. We’ve never had to turn anyone away so far. Keeping our fingers crossed, it stays that way.

It’s been an amazing organization that I’ve come to know as we’ve planned this. Having the experience of meeting everybody in the Rolling Remembrance event has impacted my life. I do these shows and a lot of times, I don’t know what I might expect when I start to get into them. Each one is their own experience. Some of them move you to the core. This was certainly one of those over the last day or so. I didn’t know what to expect when I got into it. I feel very different and moved in. Even though I served, lost many friends, and saw their families go through it, what you did was never put in this perspective for me.

Even for me, having gone through the loss myself and having had my kids had the scholarships. You’re living your life. I was coaching and teaching for about ten years. Cynthia reached out to me and said, “Would you like to come work for us?” I thought it would be such a great way to pay it forward for the blessings that we had received.

I went to an event. It was one of the first events I went to when I was with Children of Fallen Patriots. We had to set up a table or a resource room. It was at the Snowball Express with Gary Sinise. All these moms and their kids were coming to our table. Over the course of two days, hundreds of parents were coming through and they didn’t know about Children of Fallen Patriots. They were signing up for our programs.

These are all families whose kids are high school age because that’s the age of the kids that come to this program. These are kids that are getting ready to go to school. It was so impactful to me to see these moms and know how important it was for them to be able to have these resources available for their children.

I encourage everyone to get involved organization with Children of Fallen Patriots. We’ve heard abused synonymously., go there and check it out. Find a way to be involved. You don’t have to give $1 million or $100,000. You can give whatever you’re comfortable with. There’s an event not far from here in Greenwich, Connecticut in November 2023. In 2024, it’s the New York City event again in May. You can count me in to be at both of those events.Children of Fallen Patriots Development Officer Jeanette McMahon on The Jedburgh Podcast with Fran Racioppi to discuss educating children of fallen military service members.

If you go to that website,, and you’re a student who’s eligible, with a simple one click, you can enroll. It’s so easy. All you have to give us is a name and contact information. We’ll contact you and help you walk you through it. It’s made to be simple. It’s the same with a donation. It’s one click. We try to make it easy for everybody.

There’s still a lot of work to do. $12,000 identified and $25,000 are out there. We owe it to those who’ve given the ultimate sacrifice to make our nation free. We have a long way to go and it’s going to take all of us to continue to do that. Colonel Jeanette McMahon, thank you so much.

Fran, thanks for having me. It was wonderful. We appreciate the opportunity to get the word out and that you’re willing to do it.

It’s a beautiful spot here. Thank you so much.

You’re quite welcome. It was a pleasure.


Important Links

To Top of Webpage