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Memorial Day: Remembering a quiet sergeant in Iraq

DALLAS On Memorial Day, her time as a homeless veteran drawing to an end, Tonya Maynor will remember Iraq and a quiet young Army staff sergeant she met there.

In 2008, she was a chaplain’s assistant with the 82nd Airborne Division, and he was a mechanic who played drums in a church band on the military base.

They knew each other slightly, but Maynor was impressed by his dedication to duty and family. The last time they spoke, the sergeant from North Carolina was excited about going on R&R.

He never made it. A week later, the sergeant and two National Guardsmen were killed in a roadside attack.

Maynor helped organize a memorial service for the fallen soldiers. She can still see their boots, M-16 rifles and helmets on display in the chapel where everybody from privates to generals came to pay their respects.

On this national holiday, recovering from depression and other post-traumatic stress problems, Maynor will salute the sergeant whose smile brightened the grim landscape of war.

As a civilian she lost her way, but she’s now beginning to overcome the challenges.

“Memorial Day is bigger than a barbecue day,” said Maynor, 37. “It’s a time for reflection, prayer and meditation.”

For the past year, she’s lived at Faith Farm, a transitional housing facility for homeless female veterans in the Gaston County town of Dallas. Opened in 2009, the home is operated by Salisbury-based Lutheran Services Carolinas and the Veterans Administration. Female veterans are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There are about 8,000 homeless female veterans nationwide – 4 percent of all homeless veterans in the U.S. In 2011, the Veterans Administration reported serving more than 14,800 female veterans who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Joining the Army

Referrals to Faith Farm are made by the VA in Salisbury.

The facility is owned by the Lutheran Support Group of Gaston Inc., a partnership of 16 Lutheran churches in Gaston County.

Up to seven women can stay there for as long as two years.

“More females are actually going into the battlefields now,” said George Knox with Lutheran Services Carolinas. “Some come to us suffering from trauma, and it takes time to get them back on their feet. They need a safe place – a place where they’re cared for.”

When Maynor came to Faith Farm, she’d lost her Charlotte apartment and had been living in a car for months.

“She wouldn’t talk and had no trust in anybody,” said Judy Johnston, Faith Farm program director. “She was withdrawn, very depressed and suicidal.”

Women who come to Faith Farm “have lost their identities and don’t trust themselves,” Johnston said. “A lot of them discover themselves here. They find a whole new start.”

Gradually, Maynor has regained her focus and confidence. She’s begun cooking, painting and playing the saxophone again.

In June, she’ll head back to her hometown of Charleston and reconnect with her family after a long estrangement.

She will have come full circle.

An adopted child, Maynor was raised by her mother and an aunt. After graduating from North Charleston High in 1995, she briefly attended Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. But she dropped out and drifted through a series of odd jobs, including fast food and bartending.

In 2001, she followed a family tradition and joined the Army. Five generations of Maynor’s family had served in the Army – from World War II to Korea, Vietnam to Desert Storm.

Working as a cook, she traveled the world: Korea, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, South America and the Caribbean.

In 2003, Maynor went to Iraq. She lived in a tent, wore full combat gear and witnessed daily mortar attacks. At times she asked, “What am I doing here?”

But Maynor loved the Army. She had no complaints. A year later, she re-enlisted.

82nd Airborne

A big change came in 2007 when Maynor was assigned to the 82nd Airborne as a chaplain’s assistant. She remembers the elite unit’s greeting: “Welcome to the 82nd. You’re going to Iraq.”

During her second tour in the war zone she helped with church services, talent shows and other special events. She also conducted pre-counseling sessions, listening to soldiers talk about such issues as child custody and divorce.

Her duties included driving a Humvee and taking the chaplain around to other military installations. They made an easy target on dirt roads, but danger was part of any soldier’s job in Iraq.

A few months into Maynor’s tour she met the staff sergeant from Pitt County. He showed up to play drums at a contemporary Protestant church service and Maynor recalled his lack of confidence; she encouraged him and they became friends.

One day in a crowded dining hall the sergeant told Maynor how much he looked forward to an upcoming R&R and a reunion with his wife and twin sons.

Maynor never saw him again.

Shortly before he was to have left on R&R, the sergeant was killed in a convoy.

“He wasn’t supposed to be at work the day he got killed,” Maynor said. “He had the day off, but he was at work anyway. That’s the type of person he was.”

His death didn’t sink in until the memorial service. Maynor had helped with services for other soldiers who’d died in the war, but this was the first person she’d known. Everything she’d seen during two tours in Iraq hit her at once. And she knew an Afghanistan tour was probably next. Maynor decided not to re-enlist.

“I said ‘OK, I’m ready to cash in my chips,’ ” Maynor recalled. “ ‘This is it.’ ”

Starting over

In 2008, Maynor returned to civilian life and moved to Charlotte. She did OK for a few years, going to culinary school on the GI Bill. Then the past caught up with her. Insomnia, flashbacks, depression – it all came down hard.

When Maynor couldn’t find a job, she felt rejected. Her savings slipped away. Finally, she became homeless, sleeping in a parked car at Walmart or a rest area near Carowinds. It might have been dangerous, but she didn’t care. Nothing mattered.

After nearly a year, Maynor reached out to the VA for help. At Faith Farm, she found support, stability and friends.

Back in Charleston, Maynor plans to start a catering company and other businesses. She’ll try to put war behind her. But she won’t forget the sergeant killed in Iraq.

For her, his face represents all the men and women who died for their country – a powerful Memorial Day image Maynor will “honor and respect.”

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