An Airman’s Daughter

Three families. Two wars. One connection: Paying it forward.

After months of solitary confinement and torture in a North Vietnam prison camp, Navy Cdr. James Mulligan and Air Force Maj. Sam Johnson were finally given access to pencil and paper. The first thing both men did: write letters home.

The letters brought hope, which would be much-needed—they didn’t know it, but their families faced more than seven years of fear and uncertainty before the two men would be released. Johnson’s daughter, Gini, was 12 years old when her dad was shot down. Mulligan’s son, Jim, was 15.

Mulligan and Johnson returned from North Vietnam as part of the 4th Allied POW Wing in February 1973. The men remained close friends—and eight years after their safe return, Mulligan’s son met Johnson’s daughter. Within six months, Jim and Gini were married.

Fast forward 35 years, through Jim’s career as a geologist and Gini’s as a teacher in Texas, through the adventures of raising seven children and the excitement of relocating to Wilmington, North Carolina, for retirement near the seashore. When they decided to open a Giving Account®, their priorities aligned: Both wanted to focus on helping children who face the loss of a military parent.

“They have to carry on with their lives—and they will—but they do that without one important person that should be there to encourage them and be with them,” Jim says.

Black and White Photographs of U.S. Military pilots during Vietnam war

Air Force Maj. Sam Johnson and Navy Cdr. James Mulligan

“I know this is the honorable thing to do…”

Searching online, Jim found the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), a nonprofit serving the families of fallen and wounded special operations forces. SOWF’s scholarship program—full tuition, all expenses paid, and a spending allotment for all four years.

Photo of Gini and Jim Mulligan

Gini and Jim Mulligan

Photo of Lt. Col. Loftis with 2-year-old Alison wearing his Air Force cap

Lt. Col. J.D. Loftis with daughter Alison

That’s how Jim and Gini met Alison Loftis, the daughter of Air Force Lt. Col. J.D. Loftis, who volunteered for a one-year deployment to Afghanistan, then was specially selected for a second tour by the Air Force chief of staff in 2011. Like Jim and Gini’s fathers 50 years before, J.D. also turned to letter writing to help his family in a difficult time, sending love and advice into the future—just in case.

“I don’t want to be in the situation where I wonder how I could have helped [in Afghanistan],” J.D. wrote to his oldest daughter, Alison, who was then 11 years old. “I know this is the honorable thing to do, and that’s why I have to be away from you for a while.”

J.D. was killed in action on February 25, 2012, just one month before he was scheduled to fly home to his family. Alison was 13.

“In this way, you will find a way to be happy in my absence”

Alison inherited her dad’s love of learning and passion for giving back. J.D. had always stressed the importance and joy of education—he spoke nine languages, three of which he had learned for fun. There was no question of whether Alison would go to college; the only concern was how.

“The letters are a really special connection I have with him, even still,” she says. “You can still live your life in a way that not only you’re proud of, but that the parent you lost would also be proud of.”

Alison is now 21 and juggling a music and marine biology double major at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington—where she’ll graduate debt-free, thanks to her SOWF scholarship. That double major has everything to do with her dad’s advice in his letters, as does her own volunteer work mentoring younger military children who have also lost a parent. A framed quote from one of J.D.’s letters hangs on her dorm room wall:

“Make your way in life in such a manner that you don’t wonder what could have been, how you might have done or how your talents might have unfolded.”

“The more you give, the more you receive”

Photo  of Alison and dad on beach

Alison and her dad on the beach in 2008

Alison’s family is one of 1,112 military families who have been helped by SOWF since 1980. In addition to their comprehensive education focus—during the COVID-19 crisis, for example, SOWF sent computers to all students who needed them for online learning—the organization also steps up to provide services like financial support for families of all service members who are wounded, injured or ill. Jim and Gini have recommended scholarship grants to the nonprofit every year for the past six years.

“We could not accomplish our mission of serving these families without donors like the Mulligans—they are the heart and soul of who we are,” said Sean Corrigan, SOWF executive vice president and retired U.S. Army colonel. “We like to think of it as a big family that’s working together to help these kids get through college and to a career.”

For students who receive SOWF scholarships, Alison says, that support is meaningful in a way that goes beyond money.

“To be able to know there are so many people who have given to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation … is really meaningful,” Alison says. “To know that they care, and that they see us, is important.”

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