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Face of Defense: Soldiers Who Grew Up Together Find Success

By Army Sgt. Jessica Littlejohn, 24th Press Camp Headquarters

FORT BLISS, Texas, Aug. 12, 2016 — It all started in a set of duplexes in the West End Projects in Milledgeville, Georgia, where two girls, ages 2 and 5, became friends. Their mothers lived next door to each other and were also friends, so the girls played together often as they grew up.

Throughout adolescence, the girls went to the same schools and stayed close -- even when one moved to another part of town. Two of their favorite hangouts on the weekends were the McDonald’s parking lot and the skating rink.

Army Sgt. Maj. Kenya L. Berry said because there were not a lot of opportunities, living there could make you stagnate in your career choices.

“Kenya actually worked at McDonald’s,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Tara A. Haywood. “We used to hang out in the parking lot after different sporting events. Another popular hangout was the skating rink on the weekends. Back then they had step shows, so that was the highlight.” Haywood and Berry were both honor graduates at the Army Sergeants Major Academy here, after finishing in the top 20 percent of Class 66 in June.

Breaking Free

Though the girls were growing up in the projects, they did not want to fall victim to their circumstances. They wanted more out of life and saw their potential could take them further than the streets of Milledgeville.

“You could pretty much be a nurse, a teacher, or work in a factory,” Berry said.

Berry and Haywood were raised to be strong-willed and determined, they said. Berry also attributes her strength to the strong line of highly educated women in her family.

“For me, I think my background played a role in how my future would look because the females were the strong point in my life,” Berry said.

Haywood said her dad would tell her stories about hardships they had as a family, but worked through them.

“My parents raised us to know that if we worked hard and got an education that no one could take anything away from us,” Haywood said.

Making a Future in the Army

In November 1993, Haywood, then a single mother, decided to enlist in the Army right out of high school to provide a better life for her daughter, Shaquana. She said it was difficult to raise a child in the military, but she did not want to use that as an excuse not to continue with her career.

“Fortunately, for me, I had more positive experiences than negative,” Haywood said. “A network of friends and family assisted me with my daughter while I was deployed and in the field. However, it was difficult because I spent a lot of time away from her.”

Haywood’s sad feelings of leaving her daughter were not without its rewards. Shaquana said she was a better-rounded individual and more educated because she was a military brat.

“As a parent I felt bad having to leave her, but when she was going off to college she told me, ‘Do not have any regrets’,” Haywood said. “When she talked to her peers, she realized she was more advanced in a lot of ways and in her thought process being raised as a military brat. That eased the pain a little bit.”

Because of their parents’ friendship and constant communication over the years, Berry and Haywood were able to keep in touch while separated, but finally reconnected in person at Fort Drum, New York, when Berry spotted Haywood at the Syracuse Mall. Once they saw each other, from that point on, they never separated, Berry said.

Although she was already in the Army Reserve, Berry said she wanted a stronger and more sustainable career and to keep her family together. Her husband had been in the Army for six years, and she would always have to quit her job every two to three years to follow him as he advanced in the Army. She wanted more for her future and career when she decided to enlist as active-duty Army in 1997.

“The only way that I could potentially not have it all, but have it all, was to become active duty,” Berry said.

Berry said that after she saw Haywood’s progress and success, she resolved to join the active-duty Army.

“I was able to talk to her and get her point of view,” Berry said. “I listened to her positives and saw that she was doing just fine and she liked it.”

Strong Ties

Berry and Haywood have been close friends for more than 40 years and have overcome hardships, all while staying motivated and succeeding within the ranks of the Army.

Haywood was injured before she came to USASMA and was considering retirement, but she says Berry would not let her give up.

“She told me to search hard within myself and fight,” Haywood said. “She told me I had worked so hard to get here, and that I should not give up.”

Berry pulled Haywood to the gym several times a week for a month until she got better, and the hard work ended up paying off.

“She says I am bossy,” Berry said. “She says I’m always like her mama, but I do it out of love, because our friendship is beyond an associate or a friendship that I may have with someone else in the Army. She is more like family.”

Berry also went through some tough times with the loss of her son, but she said that throughout her struggles her friend was always by her side.

“My second son passed away and she was there [for me],” Berry said. “She came home for that. She knows my struggles that I have had with him passing. Losing a child and then always having to leave your kids behind [for deployment] is always difficult.”

Berry said their friendship has enabled them to grow over the years. They both came from the same small town, both enlisted in the Army, both obtained graduate degrees from Liberty University, both majored in Human Services Counseling, and were both selected for the sergeants major list at the same time. Also, they both have upcoming assignments to Korea.

“We never sat down and talked about life goals together, but I recently realized how close in comparison our records are,” Berry said. “We never planned it. It just happened that way.”

Berry and Haywood have many accolades and say they have been blessed throughout their careers. Together, they contribute their success to their upbringing in Milledgeville.

“The values that have been instilled in us are to be hard workers and to have a never quit attitude,” Haywood said.

Before Berry departs for her follow-on assignment in Korea, she left advice for those hoping to walk in her footsteps one day.

“Anytime you want success, be around success,” she said. “Do not run from the hard jobs because sometimes the hard jobs are the ones that make you successful.”

Distribution channels: Military