As the Fourth of July approaches, I can’t help but reflect on my experience as a young black Army soldier during the first Gulf War. It’s an experience that transformed my life — for the better. What might surprise some, however, is how I apply the lessons I learned overseas every day in my work to help reduce gun violence and crime in my neighborhood, a place that has seen far too much.
When I was growing up, my neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, wasn’t safe. It was plagued by crime and violence. I felt forgotten and lost. I became a mom at 17. And, although I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from high school, my guidance counselor wouldn’t even meet with me about college. But an Army recruiter took an interest and gave me more academic and career guidance than anyone else had ever done. So, the Army became my opportunity to change the course of my life.
During Desert Storm, my mission was to liberate. There was a community that needed me. In the military, I learned to conquer tasks with a tenacity that I didn’t even know was inside of me. Obstacles didn’t matter. They only sharpened my strategic thinking skills. I learned that it’s not OK to see suffering and do nothing, and I have never lost that sense of duty … that desire to go where the need is.
Many years later, after returning home, going to college, and starting a successful career in Houston, my husband and I felt called to move back to my old neighborhood and work with the youth who are growing up there today, and facing the same challenges that I did.
The Army taught me a lot about myself and life, but not everyone is suited to serve in the Army, so I’m taking what I learned and teaching it to the youth we serve in our roles at Community Renewal International. I don’t want the great things that this country has to offer to feel out of reach for those who live in my community.
Today, my husband and I lead an after-school program in our home, every afternoon, for a dozen or more teenagers from our neighborhood of Allendale, which used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Shreveport. It was a place where gunshots were not unusual.
Today, we meet with kids who may have no home to go to, who may think that the only way out are careers in rap music and professional basketball. Together, we are a group with many of the same characteristics as my Army unit; they learn to encourage each other, to bond and to care. When kids feel supported and learn to care for each other and their community, they are far less likely to engage in crime and gun violence. We encourage them to discover and pursue their own interests and talents, just as the Army encouraged mine — especially when the GI Bill paid for me to get a college education and helped jumpstart my own career.
In our Friendship House, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in America, we try to demonstrate caring, fairness, respect, trustworthiness, responsibility and citizenship. One thing from my military days that rings in my mind often is “esprit de corps”: pride in your unit. It is defined as: “a feeling of pride, fellowship and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.” It was our mantra. Esprit de corps is what we would shout before inspection, during field exercises, and even on the battlefield. We were proud to be Americans.
I work with and pray for Kalena, Cherleste and Cherpayne so that they will know that same feeling of comradeship and accomplishment that I felt with my Army unit. These feelings — and sense of family that we share — not only help one become better off but help bind the social fabric of the places we live.
And here’s the best news: it’s working. Guns may be around the kids we work with — but they don’t pick them up. Ten years ago, nearly 350 major crimes were committed in my neighborhood in one year — that’s almost one new crime every day. Today, such crime is down 60 percent here — it’s not perfect but it’s a lot better, thanks, in part, to lessons I learned in the Army.