Personal Sustainability and the Military: A Poignant Look at Balancing Life While My Partner and Best Friend Serve Our Country

An army officer in uniform attaches a pin to Sgt. Fletcher's uniform in an army base, with other uniformed officers standing nearby.
Sgt. Fletcher gets promoted while at her duty station in South Korea.
Source: Sgt. Fletcher

By Hailey Simmons, Alliance for Sustainability Intern and MPH Student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

As an intern at the Alliance we have had wide-ranging discussions about how all-inclusive sustainability really is. I shared about my experiences as a mother with an active-duty partner in the military, along with the perspectives of my partner and another US army friend. My colleagues at the Alliance felt those rarely-shared stories were poignant and illuminating, as well as an important area of sustainability that needs to be addressed. Consequently, I wrote about my experience and did two interviews to share these stories to underscore our need to assure personal sustainability for those living a military life and serving our country.

Life as a Mother with an Active Duty Military Partner

Being a young mother can already be difficult at times. But being a mother while my partner Deronte Ryans serves in the military is even more adverse. I had just graduated from Alabama A&M University with my Bachelors Degree in Biology when I found out that I was expecting. I never imagined being a mother at 23 years old and, even more so, that my partner would be stationed two and half hours away from where we lived.

My partner would come home on Friday evenings when he’d get off and then head back early Tuesday morning. Sometimes, there’d be a 10-day stretch before I’d see him again due to him having drill on certain weekends. No matter how much he tried and was there for me, there were many times throughout my pregnancy that I felt lonely.

He started the process to try to get transferred to a unit here in our city, but since he was Active Guard Reserve (AGR), he had to submit applications and interview with a board. We prayed and prayed that God would bless him with a job near home. I couldn’t begin to imagine having to care for my daughter without his presence. Our baby girl’s due date was March 30th. We found out on March 10th that he was approved to transfer to a unit here in town.

However, on March 16th, I had our daughter. He was granted parental leave of 21 days, but afterward had to go back to work. Since, he’d just gotten selected for the Reconnaissance SGT position at his new unit, he had to report back to his current unit because the transfer process wasn’t completed.

For the next 3 months, he would be on the road. He was still working at his unit two and a half hours away and then we agreed on the decision for him to go to school. He had to go to classes in South Carolina in order to get Military Occupational Specialties qualified, and then he had to turn around and go to Advanced Leadership Course in Tennessee so that he would be eligible for promotion.

I was blessed to have the help of each of our families while he was away. Although, I had the help of family, I found myself having spurts of sadness due to my partner missing out on the first few months of our daughter’s life. We really don’t realize the sacrifices we have to make when it comes to our families and careers.

On June 21st, he packed his bags to come home. That three-month stretch was tough and mentally challenging, but it’s one of the many sacrifices you have to make while being in the military or having a spouse who’s in the military.

Two Interviews Sharing about Life While Serving in the Military

One day I was thinking about how many people I have that are close to me who serve in our military and I decided to interview Sgt. Deronte Ryans, my partner of three years, and Sgt. Deasia Fletcher, my best friend of ten years, to get some insight on their experience with the military.

My partner Sgt. Deronte Ryans has served in our military since 2012 and has done a deployment at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He has had duty stations at Fort McClellan in Anniston, AL and was a part of the 128th Military Police Company before going Active Guard Reserve. He was born and raised in Huntsville, AL and went to college at the University of Alabama for one year before making the decision to join the military.

My best friend Sgt. Deasia Fletcher and I met in 8th grade and instantly clicked. She decided to join the military straight out of high school, while I made the decision to accept a full academic scholarship and go to college. We vowed to remain best friends, no matter what and no matter where. She has served in our military since 2012 and done a deployment in Bahrain. She has also had duty stations in Fort Bliss, Osan Air Base in South Korea and currently is stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She will be deploying to Kuwait next year, to complete her second deployment.

Hailey: What made you want to join the military?

Sgt. Ryans: The goal was to get out of debt for college.

Hailey: So, you went to college first?

Sgt. Ryans: Yeah, I went to college and did a year before I joined the military. I joined at 19 years old.

Hailey: So, are you out of debt from college?

Sgt. Ryans: Uh, no. I thought I had it in my contract but I didn’t have the right thing established so I still had student debt by the time I finished my first contract. It wasn’t like I could change it in the middle.

Hailey: So, do you feel like the recruiter led you astray?

Sgt. Ryans: Yes, 1000%. He’s actually still recruiting today.

Hailey: How do you feel about recruiters in general?

Sgt: Ryans: I kind of felt some type of way, but I couldn’t blame each recruiter. That’s why my best advice for anybody that comes to me wanting to know about the military is to pretty much do your own homework because that’s what I failed to do. Know what you want going in. That way the recruiter doesn’t give you options of what you have and don’t have. You pretty much already know what you want to do and what you can have. With that being said, take advantage of the internet and online resources.

Sgt. Fletcher: Ummm, because I didn’t want to go to college.

Hailey: Did you feel like you wouldn’t succeed in college or you couldn’t afford college and the military was your own opportunity to be successful?

Sgt. Fletcher: I just didn’t want to do it but I knew there was nothing for me in Alabama, so I was like let me just join the military.

Hailey: Explain to me how you feel when you go on a deployment, as far as being far away from your family and just being far away…how does that feel?

Sgt. Fletcher: When I first joined the Army I was at Fort Bliss. It was a little stressful at first because I’ve never been away from home but I kind of just got used to it. And then, with deploying, I kind of just got used to it. I think it’s different when you have kids and when you’re married. But since I’m single I actually love being deployed.

Hailey: What’s the best part of you being deployed?

Sgt. Fletcher: The money.

Hailey: *laughs*

Sgt. Fletcher: *laughs* It is!! It’s a different work environment, too. So like everyday when you’re stateside, everyday Army life is pretty hectic because you never know what you’re doing and stupid stuff always comes up. But, versus being deployed, you have a schedule. It’s a routine. It never changes. You know you do 24 hours on, 24 off then 8 hour days. So, nothing changes. It’s the same. Something I like is a routine. When you’re stateside, you never know what you’re about to do. You may come in and literally sweep some rocks or cut some grass.

Hailey: So, let’s talk deployments. You’ve been on a deployment before. How was that for you as far as being away from your family and friends? How did you feel?

Sgt. Ryans: Well, I had traveled with the military and had been outside the country with the military all before I deployed. So I kind of got a sense of not as much communication, being homesick and missing family, but nothing to the degree of not actually coming back. The times I had been away wasn’t nine months.

You can’t really physically or mentally prepare yourself for that until you actually do it. And the actual job that I had was kind of a surreal job…it was a very different experience because I was in a leadership role, but I wasn’t getting paid for that leadership that I was actually in. So, I still had to be professional and go above and beyond. At the same time, I was going through relationship issues and just the struggles of actual deployment. It’s very different. I don’t think anyone can actually prepare for it. As much training and stuff that you go through, it kind of just has to be in you.

Hailey: What made you pick your job?

Sgt. Ryans: That kind of goes back to my recruiter. I didn’t know what an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) was when I first went to the recruiter….that’s how little knowledge I knew about joining the military. First, he knew what school I went to and was like, “Oh, you went to Bama, so you have to be pretty smart.” He asked me what I made on the ACT and I told him I made a 22 and he was like I’ll be good on the ASVAB. I never got options. It was more like, “Hey, you want to be an MP (Military Police)?” He was like, you’ll get some good training, you’ll get to carry a gun, you’ll be able to train with dogs. He kind of gave all the perks. So, me not knowing and being a 19 year old, it was just like,  hey why not? I knew what I needed, so what he was offering was kind of what I wanted regardless of the job.

Hailey: Are you still an MP?

Sgt. Ryans: No, I did MP throughout my deployment. I did MP for 7 years and after the deployment I was thinking, you know, I was making decent money during the deployment and I got back to regular life and the job that I was going back to wasn’t ummm…the money that I was making in the military was more than the job that I had. The job that I was doing in the military didn’t seem as hard. So, I decided to pursue the full-time military route. It landed me with a different job title. So, I ended up getting into Logistics as my secondary job.

Sgt. Ryans standing in uniform with two other officers in uniform, on his left and right.
At the time of this picture, SGT. Ryans got promoted to Corporal while on his deployment in Cuba.
Source: Sgt. Ryans

Hailey: What were your other job choices when you were getting ready to go and why did you choose that one? Do you remember?

Sgt. Fletcher: So, I had a lot of choices. I had like 25 jobs to pick from, but to narrow them down, they included logistics, 88M (Motor Transport Operator), and a cook. The only reason I chose 14T (Army Patriot Launching Station Enhanced Operators-Maintainers) was because there was a bonus.

Hailey: Do you mind saying how much your bonus was?

Sgt. Fletcher: $20,000.

Hailey: What made you choose the Army?

Sgt. Fletcher: So, it was between the Army and the Marines. I didn’t want to do Navy because I didn’t want to live on a boat. I didn’t want to do Air Force because there was a wait and I couldn’t pick my job. So, whatever you scored on the ASVAB, that’s your job. With the Marines, when I found out you also can’t pick your job, I was like no. So, I went with the Army because I could pick what I wanted.

Hailey: I know you’ve told me before that you don’t feel like you can have a family being in the military and you want a family. And you’ve shared that you know if you or your partner stay in the military then that’s a deal breaker for you as far as starting a family. Why is that?

Sgt. Fletcher: Well, having a kid and being in the military is very hard and I salute every single mom that does it. I just don’t feel like I am truly there. So let’s say that I was single right? And if I had a kid and had to deploy and leave my baby behind? Given that after six months you are eligible to deploy, I just don’t think I’m mentally prepared to do anything like that. Now, me being married to someone that is in the military, again I don’t think that I am mentally strong or mentally prepared to raise kids by myself. You know when my husband is missing them walking, talking, and things like that. I just don’t think that I am able to do that. On top of that, let’s just be honest, not every male and female in the Army are faithful when it’s comes to those deployments, so uh yeah!

Hailey: How much longer do you think you’re going to be in and what’s your plan afterwards?

Sgt. Fletcher: Oooooo, that’s a hard one! The goal as of right is to get this last deployment under my belt, save up some money, finish my degree while I’m over there because I am only one year out from getting my bachelor’s degree. Don’t ask me why it’s taking so long because I don’t know. And then I’d get out and definitely still get a job either in my field or around my field. Whether I get out or not, I definitely still want to work for the government just for job security. I can still have my benefits, you know, things like that. I definitely would want to get a GS job (General Schedule with the Federal government). I if were to stay in, I would probably go officer. That’s another thing I’ve been thinking about but it’s in the air. If I do stay in, I’m not staying enlisted.

Hailey: What would be the benefits of you being an officer over being enlisted?

Sgt. Fletcher: One, the pay. I don’t think you understand that. The things that you go through as a private, sergeant, SFC, First Sergeant. I do not think the pay is worth what you’re going through. Versus being an officer where you get paid a lot more and you do less work. So, it’s like why would you not go that route? Now, that’s really the only thing I actually know versus being enlisted. Well, also being an officer, the retirement benefits are better. I don’t know how true that is, that’s just what I heard but I did hear that officer retirement benefits are a lot better than enlisted.

Hailey: So you said they pick a job for you? So the people that get out and work at McDonalds?

Sgt. Fletcher: No, no, no, no. The people that get out and work at McDonalds or any fastfood, they did not take advantage of the SFL-TAP (Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program). When I went to start the process of getting out, they had job fairs with legit government businesses. When they come to do the job fairs they have to have at least 5 openings, so you literally get a job on the spot. A lot of people don’t take advantage of that.

Hailey: That’s good to know because I was definitely wondering why people work at McDonalds and Burger King when they get out.

Sgt. Fletcher: Yeah, nobody takes advantage of it and nobody wants to go through the process. But if you sit down in the briefings and are set on what you want to do, even if you want to start your own business, the Army will help you.

Hailey: So, no matter if you did one contract or ten contracts, they will still help you find a job?

Sgt. Fletcher: Yes, the Army will help with all of that. That is what SFL-TAP is for and if you don’t know what you want to do, there are a whole set of briefings that you go to help you figure it out. They help you do your resume and everything, but people are so lazy and don’t take advantage of it.

Hailey: I know some people feel like you can’t have or start a family in the military. What are your thoughts?

Sgt. Ryans: Uh, I kind of have to, you know, because I have a little one. I never thought that it was impossible. I know plenty of people, plenty friends and retirees, all who have had a baby in the midst of their military career, regardless of if their spouse was in the military or not. So, it’s never been a doubt for me and never something I frowned upon. Responsibilities are responsibilities and that’s how I look at it.

Hailey: So, what’s it like being away from your family like your daughter and home?

Sgt. Ryans: It’s one of the hardest things ever. Just knowing that I have a little seed that I can’t be with, that I’m thinking about. I want to spend every moment with her and it’s kind of hard and I have to sacrifice time away from her. I do feel like it’s better while she’s young because she doesn’t really realize it but that’s actually the hardest time for me because it feels a lot harder while she’s young.

Hailey: Do you plan on retiring…like doing the whole 20, 25 years in the military?

Sgt. Ryans: I mean, ideally, that’s the goal. I feel like I’m kind of slow at the pace that I’m at but when I talk to a lot of people who have been in my situation or hopping in the game full-time at the age that I am, it kind of feels like I’m fast pacing. So, it’s kind of a toss-up because of course right now, you have your own career. So, it’s a toss-up of how things are going and how this thing rides out because I made a lot of sacrifices to be where I’m at but I’m not the only one who has made sacrifices. So, ideally retirement is the goal but regardless, I always have those benefits if I retire right now. I have some benefits that I can lean on and out of everything, that’s the pro to take away from being in and if I did not do 20 years.

Hailey: So, you kind of already touched on this but this is my last question. If somebody came up to you who wasn’t your child and told you that they wanted to go to the military, what would be your advice?

Sgt. Ryans: It’s tough to say because a lot of people cannot get into the Air Force. But I feel that the Air Force is a better suit for some people. The Army isn’t for the weak and a lot of people choose between Army and Air Force. If you can’t get accepted into the Air Force, then you have no choice but the Army. But those, especially with degrees, I try to tell them to go for the Air Force although it’s tough to get into. They are more strict on tattoos, height and weight, and, of course, your scores.

My advice is to do your homework and know what you want before you go to a recruiter. Go to a recruiter with the questions that you can’t find the answer to or the missing pieces that you don’t have. Don’t be in the same situation I was in where I was told this is the job that I should do because at the end of the day they have to get a certain amount of people in a certain amount of slots. So, this month it could be MPs then the following month, it could be engineers. If you’re clueless like I was then you could make the same mistake I did and miss out on opportunities, especially signing bonuses because I didn’t get that either.

Hailey: Thank you for your time. That concludes our interview.

Conclusion

Doing these interviews provides much insight on different reasons one might choose to join the military and the balance of that career with having a life and family. While my partner’s initial reason for joining the military is different from my best friend’s reason, both reasons are valid. Since both are very important people in my life, I thought there were no better people to tell their stories, as well as mine, to help one who might not understand the military lifestyle or how to balance raising a child while your partner serves.

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is to be very supportive and while it’s important to be supportive of your military partner or friend, they should also be supportive of you. Being away from home is very tough so it’s important to let them know they still matter while they may be thousands and thousands of miles from home. We may never know a person’s story or reasoning of why they joined the military and how they feel while serving our country, so get to know a person’s truth and thank a soldier.

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