Rochester eighth grader wins local, district and state VFW Patriot’s Pen essay contest

Emily Hammack places sixth nationally, wins $2,000


Each year, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) holds essay contests for middle and high school students. The contests offer cash prizes and scholarship opportunities, with different essay themes each year.

Rochester Middle School eighth grader Emily Hammack entered the 2023-2024 Patriot’s Pen essay competitions for middle schoolers and won the local Centralia VFW Post 2200’s contest, which qualified her for the district level.

Hammack won that, too, and then took first place in the Washington state VFW’s contest. As the state level winner, she went on to compete nationally representing Washington, where she wound up placing sixth overall.

Her essay was one of more than 73,000 essays submitted nationally for the 2023-2024 Patriot’s Pen contest, according to the VFW’s website.

On Tuesday, May 14, Hammack and her family were in downtown Centralia’s American Legion Grant Hodge Post 17, where she was honored and congratulated by local and state-level VFW members.

She was also given her final prize check from Washington state VFW Commander Craig Dougherty, state VFW Vice Commander Perry Taylor, state VFW Judge Advocate Frank Persa and VFW Post 2200 Commander Roger Towers.

“Sixth place winner Emily Hammack of Rochester represented the VFW Department of Washington, and was awarded the $2,000 Clyde A. Lewis Department of New York and Auxiliary Award,” Dougherty said.

Along with the check, Hammack received an award certificate paired with a portrait of the National VFW Commander-in-Chief Duane Sarmiento and VFW Auxiliary National President Carla Martinez.

“I am here on their behalf to congratulate you and thank you very much for entering,” Dougherty said.

The theme for the 2023-2024 Patriot’s Pen essay contest asked students “how are you inspired by America?”

“Democracy and the different features are what inspired me, like its rich history,” Hammack told The Chronicle. “History is definitely one of the things that inspired me about it.”

The essay Hammack wrote and submitted for the Patriot’s Pen contest is as follows:

“America inspires me in countless ways. Its rich history, diverse culture, and the values it upholds ignite a fire within me to pursue my dreams and make a difference in the world. The American dream, the belief that anyone can achieve success through hard work, resonates deeply with me. It serves as a constant reminder that no matter where we come from or what our circumstances may be, we have the power to shape our own destinies.

“One of the aspects of American democracy that inspires me the most is the freedom of speech. This fundamental right allows individuals to express their thoughts, opinions, and ideas without fear of persecution. It is through the freedom of speech that progress is made, as it encourages open dialog, the exchange of diverse perspectives, and the challenges of established norms. “This freedom empowers individuals to stand up for what they believe, to advocate for change, and contribute to the betterment of society.

“Another attribute of American democracy that inspires me is the pursuit of equal justice. The United States has a history of fighting for civil rights and striving towards equality for citizens. The principles of fairness, equality, and justice are deeply ingrained in the American ethos. This commitment to equal justice inspires me to be an advocate for those who are marginalized or oppressed, fight against discrimination, and work towards creating a more equal and inclusive society.

“Freedom of speech and individual rights are closely intertwined but not the same. While freedom of speech is one aspect of individual rights, it encompasses much more. Individual rights include a range of freedoms and protections, such as the right to privacy, the right to due process, and the right to equal treatment under law. These rights are essential in upholding the principles of democracy and ensuring that every individual is treated with dignity and respect.

"In conclusion, America’s history, culture, and commitment to freedom and justice inspires me to be a better person, and to strive for a better world. The American dream reminds me that anything is possible with hard work. The freedom of speech empowers me to express my thoughts and make my voice heard. The pursuit of equal justice motivates me to fight for equality and stand up against injustice. America’s inspiration fuels my passion to make a positive impact and contribute to a society that upholds the values of freedom, equality, and justice for all.”

On top of the $2,000 check she received Tuesday, Hammack had already won an additional $750 in cash prizes for winning the local, district and state level VFW Patriot’s Pen essay contests leading up to her competing nationally. 

While getting ready to start high school after this summer, Hammack is planning on saving the prize money for college.

Though Hammack is no longer eligible to compete in the Patriot’s Pen contest, she will be able to compete in the VFW’s Voice of Democracy audio essay contest for high school students.

There, she can compete for a share of more than $1 million in scholarship opportunities, including a $35,000 scholarship for the contest winner.

To learn more about both the VFW’s Patriot’s Pen and Voice of Democracy contests, including how to enter and submission deadlines, visit

The VFW is a national nonprofit organization that aims to foster fellowship among U.S. veterans of overseas conflicts along with advocating for veterans resources and programs at the federal level. For more information, visit