It felt like a “one in a million chance” that his baby daughter, Maddie, would be chosen to be the 2023 Gerber Baby, said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jun Mendoza.

But Maddie, now 10 months old, was the one baby chosen out of tens of thousands of entries and is now Gerber’s “chief growing officer.” Both her parents grew up in Navy families, and were high school sweethearts in San Diego.

Mendoza, an Air Force Academy graduate, is a doctor at the academy in Colorado Springs, where he specializes in allergy and immunology. He’s also board certified as a pediatrician, and has served in the military for 16 years.

Maddie’s mother, Crystal, is a dentist. Crystal Mendoza said she was intrigued by the first-ever “throwback” aspect of this year’s Gerber Baby contest. Those who entered the contest were asked to submit a photo of their child as well as a photo of one parent as a child. She submitted photos of Maddie and of herself as a baby.

“It was remarkable how similar she and her mom were,” Tarun Malkani, president and CEO of Gerber, told Military Times during the annual Military Child Education Coalition summit the week of July 24. Maddie and her mom were chosen from “tens of thousands” of entries — the company doesn’t disclose exact numbers, he said. Gerber officials outpointed Maddie’s “joyful spirit and captivating expression” in their July announcement.

Speaking later to the more than 600 attendees at the summit’s opening session, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Military Child Education Coalition, Mendoza said he is grateful for the organization and the work it does for military children. “Reaching forward, we’re proud that Maddie can represent MCEC and be a symbol for the work you’re going to do for another 25 years.”

The opening session featured a number of military kids discussing the needs of military children and expressing their experiences in different ways. Kylee Garick, the daughter of a Marine, read her essay “My Military Suitcase,” written 10 years ago when she was a fourth grader; and Lucy Keil, the daughter of a Navy sailor, performed her song “#Life of a Military Child.” Among the attendees were military and civilian youngsters involved in the education coalition’s Student 2 Student program in schools around the world, a student-led, faculty-advised effort to help welcome new students and ease their transition. Artwork of military children was on display throughout the summit.

“My wife and I remember when our dads, who served in the U.S. Navy, would be gone to sea for months at a time,” and their mothers were left behind to take care of them and the home front, Mendoza told the audience.

Their Navy families were able to stay in San Diego without moving, he told Military Times, but in his work as a pediatrician for eight years he saw some military children who had issues with relocating and making friends. The Mendozas themselves have moved four times in their nine years of marriage.

“A great boxer once said, ‘Life’s not about how hard a hit you could get. It’s about how many you can take and still keep moving forward,’” Mendoza said, referring to the character Rocky Balboa in his remarks at the education coalition. “I think many of us would agree that there are few people in this world that take as many hits as military children. Finding out about having to move in the middle of the school year is like a punch to the gut. Being away from your best friend is like a jab to the face. And when you find out your parent’s deployed through the holidays, that can be a knockout punch.

“But a lot of military kids don’t go down that easy. They’re strong, they’re tough, they’re resilient,” he said.

“It’s hard as a parent, a new parent … a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “We’re getting there.

“But it’s hard to balance serving my country and just being there as a dad for Maddie,” Mendoza said. “I want her to know that I’m always going to be in her corner. I want her to go on to school and make a lot of friends. I want her to be happy, thoughtful, but most of all, resilient.

He added that he is grateful for organizations like MCEC, which provide the support military children need to “tackle life’s challenges.”

“I want all the military children to know you’re not alone in the ring. You don’t have to fight this fight alone, and you’re more than capable to go the distance.”

Maddie undoubtedly will be learning about her heritage. Crystal’s grandfather, Juan Pita, was in the Philippine Scouts in World War II and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was able to escape during the brutal Bataan Death March. And Jun Mendoza is also proud of his father’s accomplishments, including being named recruiter of the year for the San Diego recruiting district in 1995 and 1996.

The last time a military child was named the Gerber baby was in 2018 when Lucas Warren, son of Georgia National Guard Spc. Jason Warren, was selected.

The Mendozas received a $25,000 cash prize, free Gerber products for up to a year, and a new wardrobe provided by Gerber Childrenswear. Maddie will be featured on Gerber’s social media channels and marketing campaigns throughout the year. Gerber is also matching the $25,000 cash prize with a donation to support March of Dimes’ maternal and infant health programs.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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