"A chosen generation... an holy nation, a peculiar people."
I am a Latter Day Saint Woman; I am a mother; I am a wife; and I am an American Soldier
Brandi Cuevas during field training exercises at Camp Bullis, San Antonio, Texas
“You should have been dead five years ago,” the words slurred from the rum punch drunkard depiction sitting on the couch. I caught a glimpse on the television screen of a Chevrolet truck rambling on a dirt path and the tell-tale song “like a rock” reverberated in my ears. Mom had retired to bed early and my siblings were playing quietly in the corner of the front room. I slowly turned around to face my dad and said inquisitively, “Excuse me?” He averted making eye contact and spat out, “Your mom and I never wanted you.” The words hit my 10-year old brain like a semi truck crashing headlong into the pit of my gut. Did I hear that right? I couldn’t fathom why he would say that. I wasn’t a bad kid. I had straight A’s. I cleaned my room. I babysat my brother and sister without pay- and I NEVER spanked them. I didn’t want to believe that it was true. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, stunned. My dad never expounded or offered any reasoning. I crawled into bed that night with his words haunting my mind.
I tossed and turned, waking the next morning feeling sluggish- my mind in a haze. I quietly crept into the bathroom where my mom was curling her hair and timidly asked her if she wanted me. She looked at me curious if I was feeling all right and told me I was silly. Hesitantly, I shared with her what Dad had said hoping the words weren’t true, praying she would still want me. “Hmpf, your dad was drinking again. Of course I want you. He didn’t mean it.” Just like he never meant to yell at us and say hurtful things; he never meant to pass out in the front doorway for all the neighbors to see; and he never meant to drive up on the median of a roadway and crash into the car in front of us while we sat in the truck without seatbelts. I relayed to her the movie I watched afterwards where a 16-year-old had heard his mom and dad arguing. Blaming himself for their disagreement, he drove off the cliff. I asked her if I should I do the same in order to make Dad happy? Appalled, she responded, “Of course not!” and continued with the morning ritual of getting ready for work and shipping the kids off to school.
At the time, I was unaware of the effect drinking alcohol would have on someone, let alone, what the effect an alcoholic parent would have on an entire family and community. I felt dismissed (I believe a product of my mom’s own trauma living with an alcoholic); it was as if my own interpretation didn’t warrant further conversation. That night, and every night after for over two looong years, I woke up haunted by my dreams dripping with sweat, my clothes clinging tightly to my frame. The running start from my bedroom to the bathroom in the middle of the night in an attempt to outrun the nightmares worked for only a short time. My mind would wander into the evenings and all throughout the days. I was tempted by the kitchen knife set sitting atop the counter. I purposefully refrained from reading books about how to tie knots- no more fodder for my imagination. I thanked the heavens that Dad kept his gun safe locked and the combination hidden. I determined that even a ballpoint pen can dramatically decrease one’s life expectancy.
I knew I couldn’t survive this way any longer. Being raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was intimately influenced by what all the locals termed, “Mormons.” I knew enough from family, friends, and the LDS community of the power of prayer and reading scriptures. In an extremely soul searching desperate effort to find a reason for my existence and a purpose to stay on this Earth, I fervently started praying for hours. I would sit outside wrapped in a thick comforter in the middle of winter on top of ice-caked snow and stare up at the stars. I imagined that the Savior would speak directly with me and provide words of comfort and direction. I started devouring the words written by prophets; some nights reading as much as 10 chapters in one sitting. I asked my mom to drop me off at the nearest ward building each Sunday. I would sit in the middle of the chapel, a lone member of my family, and listen to the spiritual messages. When I finished the Book of Mormon, I took Moroni’s Challenge and asked God if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) was true and if I should continue on this path. I heard a simple, yet profound three-letter word, “Y-E-S!”, and committed that day for the rest of my life that I would embark on a journey to live a life of no regrets.
Brandi with her family: Husband Ben Cuevas, and two daughters Kaia (11) and Taelin (10 on July 4th) on the steps of the Battle of Nations monument in Leipzig, Germany.
In the years following, I became actively involved in the Young Women’s program. My mom started coming to church and eventually took out her own endowments. My siblings enjoyed the activities in primary and Dad never hindered our religious worship. Once my Senior Year arrived, I was forced to make a decision about my life. My dad had always (hopefully half-heartedly) threatened that we would be forced to leave the house as soon as we turned 18 years old and graduated. I joined school programs, met with career counselors, and requested information from various colleges. When scores from the ASVAB arrived in the mail, I had recruiters pounding down my door. Weeks later, in a surreal moment, I found myself signing the dotted line. Hesitantly, I called my mom and asked if she was sitting down. She could hear the trepidation in my voice; her own heart rate increasing in time with mine. “Mom, I joined the Army Reserves.” Pause. “I leave one week after graduation.” Silence. This kind of news hit her like a brick. She wasn’t ready for her first born to leave the nest, let alone as a Soldier to fight in wars. She knew for certain that I was possessed and had lost my mind.
That evening when I returned home, my mom- the progeny of a carrot-colored red head with the gumption to follow, marched me straight to the Bishop’s house. Pushing me towards the door; she rang the doorbell and said, “Tell him what you did.” My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. I felt deep down that this is where I was supposed to be. Not off to college (yet); not on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and not on a graduation trip. The Bishop carefully listened to my mom’s concerns for my welfare and the choices I was making with my life. I shared with him the details that led to my decision. My conviction was sealed when the recruiter had me raise my right hand in front of the American Flag and take the Oath of Enlistment. “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” In that moment, a searing sense of pride washed over me- a tune filling my ears, “I will go, I will do, the things the Lord commands…” The Bishop put his hands on top of my head and began to offer a blessing. He told me, very pointedly, that the military was my mission and calling in this life… that there would be those who would thank me in the hereafter for introducing them to Jesus Christ.
My future eternal husband, and interestingly enough my high school sweetheart, joined the Army Reserves shortly thereafter. The commitment for a volunteer reserve Soldier is to serve at least one weekend every month (referred to as a drill) and at least two weeks in duration every year (referred to as annual training) following initial Soldier (basic) and military occupation training (advanced individual training- AIT). His departure date for basic training was only a couple of months after mine. We reported to the same location only months apart and ran into each other on occasion. Once we were married, our military records at times were mixed up as we both have the same initials “BC”; we are both Aries (born 10 days apart); we were both sent to the same unit; and we were both trained in similar military medical occupations. It was as if our lives were intertwined from the very beginning. Date nights became camouflage, M-16A2 rifles, and Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs). Annual vacations turned into excursions overseas to work together in large hospitals, swapping turns of who was selected to be in leadership, and learning to have a professional relationship (to the best of our ability) while in uniform.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD) Demographics from the 2016 report, there are approximately 2.2 million citizens who serve in the armed forces, equating to a little under 1% of the total population. As well, 6.6% of active duty personnel are in a dual-military marriage; while 2.7% are in the reserve forces. DOD also reports approximately 17.2% of the armed force population as being female. The Mormon News Room, depicts total church membership in the United States as 9,336,465 with Pentagon records showing that nearly 18,200 LDS members currently serve in the military. In other words, less than 1% of the Armed Forces population are LDS; a little over 3.5% of that are in dual-military marriage status; and 0.8% of LDS serving in the Armed Forces are women. That makes me and my little family pretty “peculiar”, even more so when you take into account that my eldest was born on 9-11 and my youngest was born on July 4th. God sure has a patriotic sense of humor!
Living the life of a Soldier, has been wrought with various themes inherent in military lives. Family vacations have frequently turned into shipping our children unaccompanied to a relative’s home for up to 6 weeks at a time since they were toddlers. Important milestones (birthdays, potty training, growth spurts, first day of school, soccer goals, etc.) have been experienced via skype, letters sent by slower-than-snail-mail, or through the telephone game (he said, she said, they told me, well I heard…). Unplanned, periodic escape drills have been rehearsed from our two-story home where one kid pops the screen out and the other tosses over an unraveling fold-up ladder. Family meetings and one-on-one, daddy-daughter or mommy-daughter dates have involved discussions of proper courses of action to take in the event of an active shooter, what actions to take if offered a ride by a stranger; and how to maintain a low profile practically going unnoticed when in public. Our children have been taught how to be independent, think on their feet, and to avoid dangerous situations.
Brandi with her husband SGM Cuevas at a Dining-in for the 8th Medical Brigade at the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York.
Being a Latter Day Saint woman in the military has even more unique hurdles. My husband and kids live in the U.S. while I am thousands of miles and an ocean away. I live what’s known in the Army culture as the “GeoBat” (short for geographic bachelor or bachelorette in my circumstances) life. Much the same as the single, unmarried Latter Day Saint life, I have many lonely moments. And moments filled with cognitive dissonance, judgment, and grief. I endure a constant internal battle where the war of the ideal Latter Day Saint woman persona versus the mission God has called me to perform are at odds with each other. To make matters even more difficult, my internal dialogue is coupled with external unsolicited opinions that demean the role of motherhood and sacrifice as a Soldier. “How could you leave your kids? Why don’t you just get out of the military? You’re more beautiful pregnant and in the kitchen. I am so disappointed in you that you would leave your family. Get pregnant so you don’t have to go.” And on and on.
The images of my home; the size of my kids; the condition of my dog have been frozen in time since my current departure. I’m not physically present for the day-to-day changes and have to create in my imagination a depiction based on the descriptions my family reports during our telephone conversations. I have been trained to feed the machine- to become zombie-like, dissociating from the normal hum-drum of daily tasks done in garrison (or at home) and focus on the mission at hand. In the brief moments of solitude, flashes of what could’ve been or is (without me) race across my mind and the longing-for-home sets in. Missing years of my children’s lives… 1-2 inches of growth marked on the wall ruler… loss of childhood fantasies (Tooth Fairy, Santa, Easter Bunny)… middle of the night pajama ninjas sneaking into my bed when a nightmare sets in… the baby barnacle who clings to mom and never lets go. Different traditions are being forged within the bonds of the family left to function without me. New roles and responsibilities have been divvied out to ensure the household continues to run. My family has learned to depend on each other, because at this moment Uncle Sam has a higher priority than my family whose vehicle has just veered off the highway with a flat tire (metaphorically-speaking). It’s gut wrenching.
Last year, I was called up for deployment to the Middle East in a leadership role. As we were busily making preparations (selling our home, talking to the kids, editing our wills and power of attorneys, etc.), I was stopped at the post office by a neighbor. My face beamed with excitement at seeing her. I gave her a hug and gushed about all the emotions I was going through leaving my kids. In front of all the patrons, she verbally tore into me about how disappointed she was in me for continuing to serve in the military and for leaving my girls at such a crucial time of their lives. She told me that I was making the worst decision of my life. She proceeded to scold me about all the other choices I could have made and reiterated the fact that all the grief I was experiencing in preparation for this deployment was my own fault and she had no sympathy for me. I sat stunned- speechless. As the tears welled up in my eyes, my heart felt as if the last crank on a compression device had been turned. I felt abandoned by a loved one. The insecure, anxious, self-destroying part of me wanted to shut down and attempt to explain myself. The battlefront was now at my doorstep- if I lost the support from home, I don’t know how I would survive overseas. My own mind attacked with self-deprecating bombs and self-efficacy eating bacteria. My 10-year old self reverted to, “how do I make her happy again and on my side?” Then just as quickly in a matter of seconds, the courage welled up in me. I turned to her. Stood with pride, told her point-blank, “You have no idea what it’s like to be a Soldier” and walked off.
I have to believe that this is all part of God’s plan for me. I imagine that in the pre-existence, I raised my hand and volunteered to live this life. It has strained every fiber of my being. It has tested me beyond what I considered my limits. I have had severe growing pains, both physically and spiritually. But I have thrived. God has made more of my life than I could have ever imagined. He has blessed me with two beautiful girls who are smart, loving and kind. When they rehearse their church talks with me over the phone, I can see the glow of their powerful testimonies. God has given me an eternal companion who is my rock; he is the greatest man I know and more than I could have ever thought I deserve. Heavenly Father has sent an angel, my mom, to stand in as a pseudo-parent providing motherly advice and life lessons to my little munchkins who think of her belongings as community property. God has sent countless others who greet me at the airport upon my departure or who immerse me in a great big bear hug in the grocery store thanking me for my service, and opening the Niagara Falls of tears.
My life is not perfect and it’s not easy- no one’s is. But it is mine. I wouldn’t change it for the world. My experiences have forged me into the person I am today. I am a Latter Day Saint Woman; I am a mother; I am a wife; and I am a proud American Soldier.
Note: If my neighbor ever reads this, I want her to know that I miss her. I love her. And I’m truly sorry that she had to go through so much. I do not condemn her. She too lived the life of a military spouse and understood too well the pains of separation and loss. I know deep down that she only wanted to protect me and my babies from experiencing what she had to go through for so many years. As well, I do not blame my dad. It pains me that he has had to endure so much from the choices he has made in his life. Alcoholism is a lonely companion that robs people of their ability to form loving relationships, hold a steady job, and grow into a well-rounded person. I pray for them both.