Yoshema Bryant grew up in Gainesville, Ala. She joined the U.S. Air Force in 1993.
I actually wanted to be an airline stewardess. That was my original, you know, dream or whatever. And one day the Air Force recruiter came by, and he listed all of these advantages and perks for coming in, you know, in reference to education and travel. And I jumped right on that and I was like, I think this is what I want to do.
So, my parents were kind of against it because I'm the youngest of three. And I came into it through the delayed enlistment program a year prior to actually coming on duty, and it's just been a fun ride ever since -- almost 16 and a half years -- and it's just been awesome. I got to travel a lot: the eight years overseas in Turkey and in Japan, and two deployments to Iraq. So it's been a fun time.
Two years after enlisting, Bryant married a fellow Air Force service member, but he soon left the military and tried to make his way as a civilian spouse.
It was very challenging because there, there aren't a lot of outside positions for dependents, so I think he started off -- he was working like at the base exchange for a little bit; prior to that he stayed home with our daughter for about, probably, about six months before he could even find anything, because jobs are like really, really scarce, you know, over there. And once he started there, he just would go to school part time and work there part time.
It was difficult from the very beginning, and as time passed on and whatever and he was getting into -- you know -- getting in school and he wanted to establish a career, it wasn't until we were in Japan that he actually got into a career that he actually wanted to be in, and that was the government contracting.
In 2004, Bryant deployed for the first time, to al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, leaving her husband to care for their 6-year-old daughter.
It wasn't so bad for him, but it was just a hard transition going into it, and I think that's probably what started everything, just him being able to handle everything.
My dad passed right before I left on a deployment, so it was kind of rough for me. I had to go anyway. And after we came back, I followed him here [to Scott Air Force Base].
'05 was when we PCS'd [moved] back here, and actually he left a few months prior to me PCS'ing, and just decided he was going to go live in Chicago, and the girls and I came here. Well, I was pregnant when I came here.
So, I have my two girls now.
I'd say the majority of it is, you know -- just most men or some men just can't accept that, you know, being the caregiver and stuff and having to do everything, and not knowing, "Oh, when is she going to have to go again?" and "Oh, am I going to have to do this?" And all of that.
Because we didn't talk that much, it was weird, we didn't talk a whole lot during, during -- you know, while I was gone, so that kind of made it, made it hard. Grieving over my dad and then every time I called, I would be like, "How's the baby?" so I can't really ever remember, like, talking to him; he just went, 'Hey, are you OK?' And that was it.
In 2008, as the single mother of two children, Bryant deployed again -- this time not to peaceful Qatar, but as a supply sergeant on various bases in Iraq.
Constant gunfire and stuff like that. It was almost, after a while -- I mean, I got used to it, and then when you didn't hear it, that's what was scary. When it was quiet, that made me nervous.
Very, very, very stressful. I mean, times where I couldn't eat. Just, oh gosh, it was awful. It was awful. Just not knowing is probably the scariest thing.
Suicide car bombers repeatedly attacked both the base and Iraqi civilians.
They'd go off right outside the compound, and there was the wire right there. I can remember them going off so hard, sometimes at night I would wake up on the floor. They would shake me out of my bed, and I'd be, 'Oh, shoot!' It was rough sometimes.
Mostly at night, a lot of times, but some things would happen during the day, early evening.
When we didn't know where it was coming from and the sirens would go off -- 'incoming, incoming,' -- and you're like, okay, what do I do? If it hits this CHU [containerized housing unit], I'm gone anyway, because it's just a little piece of tent. So really nothing to do. Grab your vest, put your helmet on, squat in a corner [laughs]; if you're outside, try to get in a bunker. But that was it."
"All the vehicles that came back, and blood and stuff was just everywhere, and just like little body parts -- I kind of hate that I saw it."
The soldiers would come in, talk about how they had just lost somebody, and we would know what area they were from. And it was -- just being in the midst of all of that. So you try to do what you could, talk to them and tell 'em it was going to be okay and -- that's it."
You look at a lot of them, they were just babies, 19 years old, just coming over and just having to experience that. I mean, at this point I thought I would be okay with it, but I wasn't.
There was one team that had like gone out -- and it was from a unit that I would get my supplies from, so I actually remember seeing the faces of the people -- and then them not coming back, that kind of freaked me out. And to know that they were the people that were involved in it. Because I mean, stuff would be constantly happening all over, but when it's like, 'Oh, I just saw him yesterday,' and they're like, 'Oh, he didn't make it,' or whatever, I'm like, 'Wow.' So even though I didn't know these people, just having a working relationship with them or seeing them around the FOB, and then you don't see them, that's kind of weird.
Bryant is proudest of helping care for wounded civilians.
We were actually helping people. Because you know even though there are different ideas about how the Iraqi people felt about us, there are some of them that are happy that we were there and they were grateful for the help that we gave to them and the assistance that we provided them. When they would have the attacks and stuff off base, people would come in injured, missing limbs and everything like that, and we would have to get them on a helicopter or something and get them medical attention. And so I felt like that was a big thing we were helping with. And I did that by ensuring they had class I items, I can remember stacking up coolers and coolers on the back of a truck with water and stuff and taking them over there, and just trying to come to the aid of the injured; sometimes they made it, sometimes they didn't. So that was pretty rewarding.
Meanwhile, Bryant's daughters went back and forth between their godparents and their father.
They had been shuffled from here to here. During the time I left, he has custody of them during the summer, so they went from being with me, to being with the godmom, to being with the dad, to being back with the godmom, to coming back with me and us living with someone else, and then they finally got to move into their own house.
It was really difficult for the smaller one, because she didn't really understand. She had just turned two at the time, and she was just like, 'Where's my mommy?' So it was really difficult for her, and it's taken all this time just to get her back adjusted, because I mean, even a year afterwards, every time I would leave her -- 'Where are you going? Are you coming back?' And it was very difficult. So, just -- changes with her, made some behavioral issues for them.
And then when I returned, I got them back and trying to get settled in. So I bought a house here in the area, trying to make the lifestyle kind of normal as I could, and she started having, you know, just some issues with dad. And from what my behavioral specialist told me, it was, that time period is very important for you to be with your kids, around age two, and I missed all of that.
I just learned, just from going to counseling and talking with them, that they feed off of me, that when I wanted to be quiet and in a corner, whatever, then that's how they act; but as long as I can put up a front or put on a show, they're fine. As long as I'm fine, then they're fine. But if I'm not OK, then they're not OK. So I've had to learn to make sure I have on my happy face even when I'm not happy.
NJ: How often do you have to put on the happy face no matter what you're feeling, even though you're feeling something very different inside?
Every day. Every day.
Bryant is still wrestling with her own experiences even as she prepares for her next deployment.
After war, you're never normal again.
They have a lot of programs, when we came back, to reintegrate, and one was like the environmental health. And you know, they had a person there working through your PCM, and she saw you on a regular basis and she had questions to ask. Then the off-base counselors, you can go see a psychiatrist, you know, just have somebody just to talk to, because that's the biggest thing -- just being able to talk about it, being able to tell somebody. So that helped me a lot.
I think I'm up again next year.
NJ: I take it you're not looking forward to that.
No, not at all. But I gotta do what I gotta do.
This article appears in the Sep. 18, 2010, edition of National Journal.