Natalie Ealy wants to highlight the need for mental health services in the military community, not just for those in uniform but also for their families.
Her husband, Dan, has been in the Marine Corps, both enlisted and as an officer, since 1998, and she said the topic of suicide is just as taboo among spouses and their children as the military members themselves.
“We don’t talk about it,” she said. “We have to be strong because when our servicemember is away, we have to literally hold down the home front and put on a happy face.”
But during decades in the service, she and Sarah Otto of Caroline County, whose husband, Jay, retired from the Navy in 2018, saw firsthand the issues spouses and children face.
Younger women, especially, who were new to the military and unfamiliar with its ways, sometimes faced bullying by wives whose husbands outranked theirs, Ealy said. Or, they weren’t able to find work in their chosen field because of the frequent moves.
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Some families had difficulty making ends meet with the lower pay typically assigned to younger members. In addition, spouses and children struggled with fear and anxiety when their loved ones were deployed in war zones.
Otto dreamed of an organization that could provide help to spouses at all levels, from those who just needed a friendly ear to those whose children needed therapy after suicidal thoughts. She also wanted to provide mental health help to veterans at every stage of their career, from the onset to retirement, when they faced questions about what comes next.
“We needed a one-stop shop for the entire military community,” Otto said. “So not only can we take care of the kids, the dependents, we can take care of the caregivers, the retirees, the veterans, everybody can come to us.”
She brought her idea to Ealy, who is living in Fredericksburg and working for the city’s Department of Economic Development while her husband is deployed to Bahrain. Both women had been stationed in Hawaii and were familiar with Ohana, a Hawaiian term meaning family, so they co-founded the Ohana Homefront Foundation in 2021.
The two have worked to establish a network of licensed counselors in each state who volunteer their time to anyone associated with the military. They’re also pooling other resources so they can find help, quickly, for anyone who reaches out to them, through their website at ohanahomefront.org or at 804/214-2763.
Ealy also is in the spotlight — where she hates to be — for another campaign.
She was nominated for the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year. Because she and her family don’t live on a particular base, she’s in what’s called the “unattached” category and already has been voted the top military spouse in that group.
Ealy is among 20 finalists nationwide, representing all branches of the military, for the spouse-of-the-year title. Seven finalists will be announced Monday, then a winner will be determined by judging panels and popular votes at msoy.afi.org/. The voting will take place on Thursday and Friday, March 9–10, and the winner will be announced in May in conjunction with National Military Spouse Appreciation Day.
Ealy didn’t want the limelight. She cringed at the thought of submitting photographs for the nomination and said, while putting together a required video, made more bloopers than actual footage.
But, she said she accepted the nomination because of the attention it could bring the new foundation. And that’s typical of Ealy’s selfless nature, said those who submitted letters of recommendation.
“Natalie’s passion for ending the stigma surrounding mental health while bringing awareness to the suicide epidemic truly sets her apart,” wrote Marcel Bolboaca–Negru, an Army major and member of the Ohana Homefront Foundation board.
He said her quest to provide crisis intervention for all members of the military community is “to ensure that no service member, veteran, military spouse or military child is left behind.”
Marine Corps Col. P. Burke Eltringham, the executive officer of the U.S. Africa Command of which Dan Ealy is a part, first met the Ealys at Camp Pendleton, California. There, she was a central figure in the spouse and volunteer group, and her list of accomplishments, including as a mentor to other spouses and in various leadership positions, was impressive then and is “absolutely staggering to me today,” he wrote in his letter.
Eltringham called her “a graceful powerhouse, a woman of thoughtful action, a passionate servant–leader.”’
Ealy’s current boss, Bill Freehling, Fredericksburg’s director of economic development and tourism, praised her skills in his department and the way she’s taken on whatever’s asked “without batting an eye.” He said he’s also admired the many roles she plays, as a military spouse with a husband deployed overseas, a mother, sibling, an entrepreneur through her extended family’s business, co-founder of the foundation and a friend.
“She simply never drops the ball on anything,” Freehling wrote, “and we are all lucky to know her.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425