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A professional golfer who also is a fighter pilot honors Memorial Day throughout the year by giving scholarships to the families of American service members killed or disabled in the line of duty.
Major Dan Rooney, a T-38 “adversary” pilot who once a month plays the role of an enemy aviator during realistic combat training for the Air Force Reserve, has awarded more than 10,000 scholarships to grieving military families through his Folds of Honor foundation.
“We have that humble opportunity to stand with these families in very dark situations and bring a ray of hope and light into their lives,” Rooney tells PEOPLE. “It’s an honor to be able to do that.”
Rooney’s project evolved from a life-altering moment in 2006 aboard a commercial aircraft. Rooney was on his way home from his second tour in Iraq as an F-16 fighter pilot for the Oklahoma Air National Guard. As his flight landed, the captain announced that the plane was carrying the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin, a soldier who was killed in Iraq. The captain asked that all passengers remain respectfully in their seats until the fallen man’s casket was removed.
“Half the people on the plane honored that request,” Rooney says. “The rest got up.”
Rooney watched while Bucklin’s twin brother escorted the casket to where the family was waiting. There among the heartbroken family stood Brock’s young son, Jacob.
“At that moment, I knew I had to do something for the families of Americans who sacrificed for our freedoms,” Rooney says. “I see it as a duty.”
At home in a suburb near Tulsa, Rooney decided he would help pay educational costs for the families of Americans killed or disabled in combat. Based off a plan that he wrote on a napkin, the airman set to work.
“I knew I needed money,” he says.
Rooney turned to his civilian colleagues in the professional golf community for help. He asked the head of the Professional Golfers Association to support a plan to ask golfers nationwide to observe Patriot Golf Day on Labor Day weekend, by donating money before they took to the greens. The PGA leader liked the idea.
“When he made a personal commitment, that was when Folds of Honor took flight,” Rooney says.
Since then, the charity has added fundraisers attached to other events, such as bowling, fishing, and shooting, and has reaped sponsorships from organizations such as NASCAR, Budweiser, Coca Cola and others.
Scholarship recipients receive $5,000 toward educational expenses for schooling – ranging from kindergarten through college.
Wesley Bauguess of Raleigh, North Carolina, learned about Folds of Honor through widow networks after her husband, Army Major Larry Bauguess, was killed by enemy gunfire in Pakistan in 2007. The couple were parents to two daughters, who at the time were 4 and 6 years old.
Wesley wanted her daughters Ryann and Ellie – who had experienced devastating loss – to have the best possible educational foundation; but the young widow could not afford the school she believed was best for her children.
Folds of Honor stepped in to send the girls to a private Christian school.
“They are getting an unbelievable education,” Wesley says. “What they are doing for us is priceless. They’re sending the girls on a great trajectory.”
“I love the school,” says Ryann, now 15. “It’s awesome.”
Both of the Bauguess girls tell PEOPLE they plan to attend college.
Wesley views their ambitions as an extension of honoring their late father.
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“Larry’s void is very noticeable in our lives,” Wesley tells PEOPLE. “Every day we feel his loss. Every day is Memorial Day. We drive on because Larry would want us to.”
Many other families are in the same position, Wesley says. “The children are worth support.”
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In a video testimonial for Folds of Honor, grateful students who attended college using funds from the charity explain that the schooling helps honor their lost parents.
“One thing [my father] always told me go to college,” said Charles Caldwell, who enrolled at East Tennessee State University. “Go to college .it’ll set you out from everybody else.”
“My dad would be so proud of me and my sister for going to college and getting our degrees, and just not giving up,” said Tayler Garber, who enrolled at Belmont University.
In each clip, the students – many tearful – say, “Thank you, Folds of Honor.”
The grateful recipients have also had an impact on Rooney.
“Every day is an emotional experience,” he says. “I want them to be able to pursue their dreams.”
“I pray every day for the energy to keep going forward,” Rooney continues. “Hopefully we won’t leave any family behind that calls for help.”