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Airman shares story as war-torn youth in Africa

  • Published
  • By Capt. Andre Bowser
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The early morning dew made blades of grass latch to her legs as 6-year-old Isata Tucker ran from the rebels who attacked her village in Sierra Leone, Africa.

Now Air Force Staff Sgt. Tucker, 23, recalled the morning 17 years ago and how even as a youngster she knew better than to take the road. Instead, she cut through the bush in her escape.

The Mobility Airman, who deployed from the 87th Force Support Squadron, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations in the fall of 2016, works at the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen as a manager on duty. She provides personal support for the grieving families who stay there.

Her own traumatic past experience of dealing with the loss of loved ones and of being the bereaved aid her, she said, in her difficult military task.

“I saw so many people killed in my country during the war,” Tucker recalled, referring to the widespread fighting in 1999 in her former country between rebels and the embattled government of Sierra Leone. “I became used to seeing bodies at an early age.”

Born in the village of Upline, Tucker grew up in the countryside before moving to the capitol of Freetown. Her journey to U.S. citizenship would come after her father immigrated to the United States and enlisted in the Navy. But before Tucker would join her father and settle in Lowell, Massachusetts, she would spend a year amidst the uncertainty of war.

Recalling the morning the rebels came extremely close to harming her and her family, the morning she had to run, Tucker said she was abruptly awoken by a relative. “She told us: ‘Wake up and hide!’ I remember her yelling ‘get under the bed!’ ‘Get under the bed!’”

Tucker said she and other children were taken outside, and they ran in the safest direction away from gunfire. But in the ensuing chaos, then-6-year-old Tucker slipped away and got lost.

“I found another woman who was running with children, but she was not concerned with me.” Tucker said that’s when she ran into a familiar face. “A family friend told me that my mother was looking for me, and I ran in the direction of my house.”

With random gunfire assuring no safe direction, Tucker said her shortcut through the bush did not immediately deliver her to home or safety.

“A rebel saw me and told me to ‘come here!’” Tucker said. She heeded his words, with tears welling in her eyes. “The man told me to go into a nearby schoolhouse and to wait.”

Although the body of a teacher lay near the building, she entered the otherwise empty schoolhouse. Alone, Tucker said she waited until she heard other rebels gathering outside. “They were speaking about something and they were very enthusiastic about whatever it was.”

Then there was more indiscriminate gunfire. In that moment, Tucker said she decided to crawl out the back of the schoolhouse and to continue her journey home.

“My mother was waiting for me at our house,” she said. “After I found her, the rest of the fighting and killing passed us by that day.”

Tucker’s mother, who worked as a midwife, had been at work when the fighting began. Tucker had been staying with relatives. In the midst of the fighting, after finding her mother, Tucker said a shaky feeling of safety came when the gunfire stopped., but the ebbing violence would come again and again, she said.

Tucker said at the heart of the conflict in Sierra Leone was what was called “blood diamonds,” linking the world’s diamond trade to warlords in her country who mined the precious stones as much with rifles as with other tools.

Tucker said her family initially moved from the countryside to the city of Freetown for the relative safety afforded in the seat of government, but even that didn’t last.

“At first it wasn’t that bad in the city, but war was moving toward us,” Tucker recalled. And then “for a really long time — nothing was safe.”

On April 27, 2000, Tucker moved to Massachusetts with her older brother and sister to live with their father. The Navy veteran secured passage for his children, who were brought to the U.S. under refugee status. Her father, who will retire from the Navy in May 2017, had separated from her mother, who remains in Sierra Leone.

“It was difficult leaving her behind, but she wanted us to go,” said Tucker, whose life in the U.S. was finally stable at the age of seven.

 With her war-torn youth in her past, Tucker said she followed in her father’s military footsteps while attending Lowell High School. She became heavily involved in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at her school. Her next step was to seek higher education and afterward to join the military.

“I learned a lot about the Air Force before I ever decided to join,” said the student who graduated with a 4.0 GPA. “I received an ROTC scholarship from Howard University, and then I was asked for paperwork proving I was a citizen.”

With all of the promise of attending college and studying toward becoming a military officer, Tucker said she experienced a surprising set-back on the heels of her senior year.

“My older sister had her citizenship paperwork. My older brother had his paperwork. But since my birth certificate and a lot of my paperwork was lost during the war, I only had my Social Security card — and nothing else.”

Tucker’s family leapt into action, with barely two months to apply for and to produce the necessary paperwork she needed to move forward with her scholarship.

The deadline passed. Her college aspirations were dashed.

“It was the worst summer of my life,” she recalled. “Everything I had worked for — just like that — was for nothing.” Similar to that road from her early youth back in Sierra Leone, Tucker found herself deterred and stumbling through uncharted terrain. And once again, she found help from a familiar face.

“My JROTC instructor talked me into enlisting in the Air Force,” Tucker said. “I called a recruiter — he helped me with my citizenship paperwork — he took me to appointments and through the entire process at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Boston.”

Months later, during her graduation from Basic Military Training, in front of her family and friends, Tucker said she received a surprise. “They called me up to the front of the graduating class, and I thought I was in trouble,” she said, recalling the seminal day in 2013 when she was asked to raise her right hand and take the oath to become a naturalized citizen.

Tucker said she has never looked back.

“I look forward to serving in the Air Force and to retiring,” she said, adding that she places her education on an equal tier as her Air Force career, with aspirations of “receiving a commission as an officer.”

To that end, Tucker said she has thrown herself at her work in the services career field, earning the rank of senior airman below-the-zone, staff sergeant her first time up, and receiving the individual John L. Hennessy Travelers' Association Award of Excellence in 2014, among other military accolades.

Now focused on her military and academic educations, Tucker has her sights set on two Air Force programs geared toward Airmen seeking commissions as military officers. The Professional Officer Course — Early Release Program, and the Scholarship for Outstanding Airmen.

As a survivor of a war-torn youth, Tucker says her perspective on goals and life is tempered by her role at AFMAO, where she is constantly reminded of how fragile life is, even for someone who experienced its fragility at an early age.

 “I always tell myself when something I want doesn’t happen — everything happens for a reason. Every roadblock I stumble on — I know it’s not going to last forever.”