At 16 years old, Puyallup High School sophomore Erica Roloff has as many friends outside of her generation as she has in her own.
Many of her friends are veterans — a result of a long, dedicated relationship with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
“I’ve always had that patriotism and I’ve always hung around military families,” Roloff said. “As an only child, I grew up around a lot of adults, so I know how to talk to them.”
I’ve always had that patriotism and I’ve always hung around military families. As an only child, I grew up around a lot of adults, so I know how to talk to them.
Erica Roloff, sophomore at Puyallup High School and auxiliary member of VFW Post 2224
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For as long as she can remember, Roloff has been surrounded by military veterans, in her own family and outside of it. She was originally born in Bremen, Germany while her father, Eric, was in the U.S. Army, where he served for 12 years.
In addition to her father, Erica’s uncles have served. Linda Roloff, Erica’s mother, has a brother who’s a 22-year Navy veteran and a brother-in-law who’s a 23-year Army veteran.
“Erica has grown up around them,” Linda said. “It’s just what our family does.”
The Roloffs joined the VFW Post 2224 in Puyallup five years ago. At that time, Erica became a member of the Junior Girls Auxiliary. When she turned 16, she became eligible to become a member of the VFW Auxiliary, and became a lifetime member.
There aren’t many younger lifetime members, said Linda, who added that Erica is about one in five kids her age who show up regularly to the meetings. Erica even waitresses at the Post.
“It’s an interwoven family,” Erica said. “Everyone in the VFW is loving and accepting. It’s amazing how many vets we meet. At this post I’ve heard the most diverse war stories — from Afghanistan all the way to World War II.”
It’s an interwoven family. Everyone in the VFW is loving and accepting. It’s amazing how many vets we meet. At this post I’ve heard the most diverse war stories—from Afghanistan all the way to World War II.
It’s from years and years of hearing stories from veterans that inspired Erica off to participate in the VFW’s Voice of Democracy program, which provides high school students the opportunity to write an essay revolving around patriotism. Every year, the program gives away $2.1 million in scholarship money, including a $30,000 scholarship for the national winner.
Erica’s essay title was “My Responsibility to America,” which was the theme of the 2017 competition. In her essay, she discusses the importance of freedom, maximizing potential and how “America has woven together a coat of many colors that anyone who loves freedom is able to wear.”
With her essay, Erica was chosen as the representative of Post 2224. Then she won her district, which has 10 posts. Before she knew it, she was going to state in January to compete against 14 other students. She took home first place, a spot at nationals and $1,350 in scholarship money.
“She’s not just someone who entered this from high school — she’s a VFW kid,” Linda said. “Everyone was watching out for her. She was one of their own.”
Erica left for Nationals in Washington D.C. at the end of February, where she and 54 other contestants met and toured the city, visiting museums and monuments.
The teen found she’d taken 38th place and was given a $1,000 scholarship. She made lifelong friends in the process.
“The most exciting part was getting to talk (to the other contestants) and finding commonalities,” Erica said. “All 54 of us had a long-term plan, a connection to veterans and flaming patriotism.”
The most exciting part was getting to talk (to the other contestants) and finding commonalities. All 54 of us had a long-term plan, a connection to veterans and flaming patriotism.
Some people at her school don’t quite understand her commitment to the VFW and the future goals she’s set for herself, said Erica, but that she’s found real friends who do. Even though she’s still a sophomore, Erica plans to enlist in the Army after graduation and has applied for the ROTC program at Washington State University. She loves science, serving others, being outside and traveling, and wants to become an Army RN.
“I was thinking how can I mesh all these things into a reality,” she said.
It was no question that she would become a part of the military family, Erica said. She remembers stories her father told her, of planes flying through the sky, of giving candy to children in different countries, of hearing their languages.
At VFW Post 2224 in Puyallup, she greets everyone like family — and they greet her the same. She loves to listen to the stories they share, and is trying to transform the way other people see VFW posts — that younger veterans and their families are welcome, and that if they need anything, the Post will help.
“We’ve kind of turned our focus to make the VFW family-friendly,” said Larry Heires, a two-year Army vet and a Post 2224 member since 2001. He’s known the Roloff family for years.
“That’s what’s great about this post — it’s exceedingly family-oriented,” said Linda. She added that when it comes to Erica and younger members, “probably one of the biggest services they do is just be here with these gentlemen and hear their stories.”
Erica is looking forward to meeting up again with the other Voice of Democracy students in June. For now, she works hard in school and continues to spend time with her VFW family.
“I’ve made amazing friends,” Erica said about her Voice of Democracy experience. “I know VFW members across the nation.”