Written By: Ronald Sklar
“Mario — my late husband — is the motivation for this,” says Sugar Bear Foundation chairman Jennifer Carazo. “We are trying to continue his legacy of service.”
Lieutenant Colonel Mario “Sugar Bear” Carazo would be proud. The 501 c (3) non-profit organization supports the surviving spouses and children of fallen United States military personnel.
Its main aim: to provide assistance for programs which meet survivors’ immediate and ongoing needs, and foster their personal, emotional and social well-being.
How it’s done: by hosting events that raise funds for these programs, including everything from pancake breakfasts and pub crawls.
“I absolutely love what I’m doing,” Jennifer says. “It’s just a joy. I wake up every morning looking forward to working on these events and projects. People are starting to reach out to us now. We are becoming a little more recognizable. It’s no longer Sugar What?”
Sugar Bear is Mario’s nickname, and that’s one of the many ways that the foundation honors him.
“Sugar Bear — that was his call sign,” Jennifer says, referring to the animated Post Cereals character that promoted Super Sugar Crisps cereal. “He sort of looked like Sugar Bear. He wasn’t very tall. He had sort of a stocky build to him. He loved to dance. It just fit him. He was always happy. He was always smiling. Nothing ever got him down. He was always just super upbeat. And I think a lot of that stems from childhood. He started out with a very meager background, but he had a very positive mindset.”
Sugar Bear made the ultimate sacrifice on July 22, 2010, when his AH-1W Super Cobra was shot down while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan. He was 41.
His personal decorations include the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, and the Meritorious Service medal with gold star, the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation medal, and Navy-Marine Corps Achievement medal with gold star.
“He was a true Marine,” Jennifer says, “upbeat and positive in that sense. But he was also a big softy, and he cared so much about his guys and their families. If they had a problem, he had a problem. During our marriage, I learned about how he felt about the men and women he served with.”
Jennifer is also discovering that the foundation is opening even more doors — and doing more good — than its initial purpose.
“Part of our mission is to raise funds for these organizations,” Jennifer says, “but it’s also to raise awareness. The civilian sector might not know what is there for a family like ours. And other survivors might not know what’s out there. So we like to think that we are raising money, which is needed, but also raising awareness so that other potential donors could help these organizations as well. The mission there is two-fold in that sense.”
How has interacting with other surviving families changed Jennifer?
“It’s made me a lot more resilient,” she says, “but it’s also made me much more mindful of what goes on in the world and people’s day-to-day lives. I feel like I have a better understanding when I meet these families, because of what I’ve gone through and for what may lie ahead for them. I want to extend to them what we’ve been given, to help make that road a little bit easier, if that’s possible. It’s just an understanding of what they are facing and what their children are going to face, and just be a comfort to them in the way that we’ve been comforted.”
Jennifer’s children are also a shining example of their father’s legacy.
“They are doing really well,” she says of her son and daughter. “They’re in their early teen years, and they are realizing that daddy is gone and they are growing up without a father. But both are really doing amazing things. They’re involved in volunteering. My son is doing an internship this summer at the Naval Academy and possibly attending there. My daughter is volunteering, teaching dancing. They are both very service conscious, wanting to give back, which is a big goal of mine. I know Mario would be happy about that. We’ve had a lot of support, which has made a huge difference. The friendship that has been extended to our family has made a big difference. I’m very proud of them.”
Jennifer’s experience is just a small part of a growing consciousness about the post-service plight of our veterans, and the sacrifices they have made.
“There has been a movement — justifiably so, and I’m happy to see — towards raising awareness,” Jennifer says. “This is regarding our veterans returning home, transitioning out of the military, and what their families are dealing with, including some of the mental health issues. Our goal is to raise awareness for our gold star families. I’m happy when I see that our fallen heroes are remembered and acknowledged, but it’s also important to extend that to the families.”
With the help of foundations like Sugar Bear, the wheels seem to be in motion.
“I’m hoping to be piggybacking on that movement, because there is a lot of momentum right now,” she says. “Celebrities like Gary Sinise and Mark Cuban are saying, ‘hey, these are our veterans, look what they’re doing, they need our support. They need our assistance.’ It draws attention in a positive way. And it should. These families should be getting our attention, because they are sacrificing on an everyday basis. I hope that we can garner that same support — to celebrate these heroes’ lives and also to remember their families.”
Jennifer has accomplished a lot in a short time, but she’s only just getting going.
“I hope to inspire other people in that they can get through something like this,” she says. “You can move forward, and it can be positive. We’re taking Mario’s spirit, and we’re moving it forward. That’s how I’m looking at this.”
Jennifer Carazo is available to speak at your organization’s event to bring awareness about Gold Star and survivor issues. Please email Jennifer to provide the details of your event.
Find out more about the Sugar Bear Foundation here:
Website – http://TheSugarBearFoundation.org
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/sugarbearfoundation/
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.com/sugarbearfdn/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/SugarBearFdn
Written By: Ronald Sklar