NEWPORT BEACH — Kelsey Woo had no family ties to the military when she first competed a year ago for a national scholarship awarded by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But today she feels much closer to the nation's men and women in uniform.
"I really have a deeper appreciation for all that they've sacrificed," said the 18-year-old Newport Beach resident.
Last year, Woo made it to the state finals of the speech writing contest, but fell short of winning the VFW's $30,000 T.C. Selman Memorial Scholarship.
Now, after a second try, she has come in first among thousands of students competing for the scholarship by winning at the Voice of Democracy national finals.
After a year of immersing herself in the veteran community, Woo wrote a second speech that won the top prize March 6 in Washington, D.C.
"I was introduced to this amazing community of people I have never known about," she said. "I really ended up doing [the contest a second year] because I love these people."
Before the competition the aspiring writer, a senior at the private preparatory Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, said she couldn't relate to what it meant to serve in the military.
It was through meeting veterans and their families, attending a military ball and doing lots of research that the meaning of their service started to sink in, she said.
Woo was flown to Washington on March 5 to participate in the final step of the contest after advancing through the local, regional and state legs of the competition.
The contestants had to write a speech answering, "Does My Generation Have a Role in America's Future?"
She joined students from every state as well as from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to tour Washington and give their speeches in front of more than 2,500 people.
Woo sat and waited as more than 50 names were called until finally it was announced that she had taken the top prize.
"I started crying, I was so excited," she said.
As a graduating senior, Woo can't enter the contest again, but she will stay in touch with the contestants she befriended.
She also wants to continue a relationship with some of the veterans she met — especially those at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10694 and Ladies Auxiliary in Santa Ana, which sponsored her.
She has also been asked to act as a spokeswoman of sorts for the organization and talk to other military groups.
Meeting veterans and understanding what they have done has been the biggest reward for Woo, said her father, Steve Woo.
"For her, she's realized that freedom isn't free," said mother JoLynne Woo. "I think that's the biggest thing she's learned."
Read Woo's winning essay or watch her read it at http://www.vfw.org.