Before she exited her 20s, Shulena Bryant fought had two wars — one against the Iraqis, then a tougher one with herself.
Bryant, a single mom, returned from the Middle East with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an affliction she treated with alcohol, marijuana and pain medication.
"The first night we got back, I went out with my best friend, Jennifer, and other people from our company, and we all drank until we blacked out. And we did that for four days straight, until we had to report in and go back to work," she said.
For Bryant, it was the beginning of a substance abuse problem that nearly ruined her from September 2009 to Oct. 4, 2011, the date she kicked her habit and got sober.
Her turning point, she says, was in December 2010.
"I just couldn't look at myself anymore because I wasn't being a good mom," she said. "It was about Ethan."
Bryant and Ethan, 8, now live in a two-bedroom apartment in Marina that the Veterans Administration's Supportive Housing Program helped her find. The Salvation Army came through with deposit money for the landlord.
"I really didn't know what I was going to do if they hadn't come through for me with that money. I didn't know where we were going to go," she said.
Ethan is a quiet, polite child, a good student in his third-grade class at Ord Terrace Elementary. He's a thinker whose favorite pastime is curling up with a good book.
"He absolutely loves to read, and his vocabulary is better than a lot of adults I know," his mom says with a proud laugh. "Right now he's fascinated with weather. He's reading all about tsunamis, and hurricanes, and hailstorms ... that kind of stuff. I told him he'll probably become a meteorologist someday."
For Bryant, leaving Ethan behind to live with his grandmother and great-aunt was the hardest part about going to Iraq. She worried about him nonstop, even though there was plenty to worry about in Iraq.
"It was very, very dangerous. I was at Camp Taji, a gun-truck driver, driving our lieutenant around, but also providing transportation for a lot of civilians," she said. "When you're driving a civilian, you are their support, their artillery, their guns, their protector.
"I was never shot at, myself, but our company came under fire. A lot of crazy stuff happened there."
For the most part, U.S. soldiers weren't popular in Iraq, she says. Villagers made obscene gestures, and children threw things at their vehicles as they passed. There was no way to be certain who or what they'd find around the next corner.
"For the first couple of months I was very afraid, but I don't think that fear ever really goes away," said Bryant, who was deployed for 15 months. "You had to cope with it, deal with it any way you could, because you couldn't tell your commander, 'I'm too scared ... I can't do that,' or 'I think we should take another route back to camp.' Eventually, the fear becomes a kind of numbness."
The heat in Iraq sometimes exceeded 130 degrees in summer months, and dipped below freezing in the winter. Dust and dirt was the norm. Garbage lined both sides of almost every street and road, creating unbearable stench.
Iraqi men stunk, too, she says, and followed female soldiers aggressively everywhere they went — to the point where she never ventured out without male soldiers as protectors.
Equally stressful were her concerns about Ethan. Her mother had battled substance-abuse problems throughout her adult life, and although she promised to live a clean life while her grandson was in her charge, Shulena worried.
Fifteen months in hell took its toll on Bryant, who disappointed herself when she returned and began self-medicating — something she had promised herself she'd never do after watching the struggles of her mother and her stepfather.
Heightening her own depression was the fact that her mother had worked hard to clean up her own life during Shulena's deployment.
"When you're dealing with PTSD, and you've also got a substance-abuse problem, it's very hard to see a way out. Alcohol, marijuana and Vicodin had clouded my vision," she said. "But I knew it wasn't the life for me. I realized that being a mother was where my focus needed to be."
In December 2009, Bryant checked into the detoxification program at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, then endured a 28-day program at St. Helena Recovery Center in Napa Valley.
"I don't know why, but it didn't work," Bryant said. "The same day I finished that program, I was drinking again."
Seven months later, in October of 2009, she returned to Community Hospital for another round of detox, then did a three-month stretch in a veterans program for PTSD.
"I learned a lot about myself during the PTSD program," Bryant said. "I found out why I behave the way I do sometimes, and how things that happened in your past can affect your future."
The next challenge for Bryant was the threat of homelessness. She and Ethan were living with her mother, a situation that wasn't working. But then she found the apartment.
"I'm so thankful to be in our new apartment," Bryant said. "The first time I walked in, I looked around, saw the fireplace, and said, 'Yes, I love it!'"
Ethan will start at a new school in Marina, where his mom assured him that he'll make a lot of new friends. Shulena hopes to find a good job — waitressing, perhaps — and buy a car, with a more-distant goal of returning to school for nursing.
"I'd like to work in mental health," she said. "Between my own struggle, and the struggles of my family members, I know a lot about substance-abuse, and how difficult it can be to overcome. I've been sober since Oct. 4, 2011, and it's been life-changing."
Operation Christmas Cheer
Operation Christmas Cheer is sponsored by The Herald, the Salvation Army and 1st Capital Bank to help local families that find themselves in need this time of year.
Operation Christmas Cheer has raised more than $2 million, which has been distributed to needy Monterey County families and individuals over the holidays.
The money helps families who have come to the Salvation Army for support. Applications are screened and contributions will go directly to assist Salvation Army clients on the Monterey Peninsula and in the Salinas Valley.
During the coming weeks, The Herald will profile several families needing help this year.
A special feature of the Operation Christmas Cheer campaign is that contributors can have a brief personalized holiday message published in the newspaper by using a coupon printed each day in The Herald or by printing it from The Herald's website, www.montereyherald.com.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or email@example.com.