by Moriamo Sulaiman-Ifelodun
Nope, I’m just kidding, this isn’t that type of story. However, there is some correlation, because I have never really told this story to anyone except for those really close to me because it’s my story. But here I am, sharing this in the hopes that you understand that sometimes the most unexpected encounters and experiences force you to step up… or step out! Forewarning: there is some real talk in this story. But if that bothers you, you probably wouldn’t be reading The Havok Journal in the first place…
Nature vs. Nurture: Growing Up African
I often think about the “nature versus nurture” argument concerning what shapes who we are as individuals. You hear it all the time in every science class growing up: is human behavior determined by nature – our genes? Or is it by nurture – our surroundings and how we are brought up, that determines how we are molded and formed growing up? Well, in my case, it’s a little bit of both. For most that know me, I can be described as pretty outgoing, motivated, driven, smart, and sometimes inappropriate (their words, not mine). But in all actuality, I haven’t always been that way. Although I am now a U.S. Army Officer, this was never the path that I thought I would follow.
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and grew up in a pretty traditional African household. My family lived in a compound with my two aunts, my uncle, and many of my cousins, and most importantly, my grandma. My grandma and I were extremely close. She was the kindest woman I have ever known. She supported and nurtured my rebel spirit, my rough and tumble nature, and my creativity. I have this idea that she was maybe that way when she was younger, and she just understood me. When I would talk back, stand up for what I believed in, or got in trouble for whatever reason, I would run to her apartment and she would shield me when the proverbial hammer would attempt to come down.
She encouraged me to be who I wanted to be and live life unapologetically. But, everything changed when she passed in May 1998. This was the start of a difficult 22-year road that I wasn’t ready for. I was traumatized by the loss of my first best friend. Her passing was so sudden and forceful that it was extremely overwhelming. And just like that, I became extremely introverted. I wouldn’t want to eat, I lost all excitement and happiness. For quite some time, there were only two things that brought me any type of joy: my grandma and education.
Yes, I know I just said my grandmother passed, but I still got to talk to her while she was in the spirit realm. In many cultures, especially in Africa, the spirit realm is a big deal, and ancestral spirits are said to watch over their living relatives even if they don’t believe. At the tender age of 8, I had a strong connection to spirits and I would stay up at night and talk to my grandma, and I was happy I still had her with me, so it wasn’t so bad.
I distinctly remember on one occasion, she wanted me to keep reading and educating myself on anything and everything I wanted to know. Learning was so important to her because knowledge is power and that power makes you unstoppable. Then came my second escape – books. At no point in time would you ever see me without my nose in a book. Learning brought me the most joy, and truly, it still does. Writing, photography, art as a whole brings me so much joy. And for that, I thank my grandma.
My grandma’s passing was hard on everyone, but especially my mom. So, she decided to uproot my sister and me from Nigeria and move to the United States. She didn’t tell us we were moving, instead portraying it as a summer vacation. But lo and behold, we made the transition to Minnesota in the summer of 1998, and that’s when I stopped seeing my grandma. It was time to start a new life.
In a traditional African household in America, you grow up with school and success always in the forefront of your mind. You are never allowed to fail, and if you did… well, let’s just say you were in serious trouble, also known as the constant threat to be sent back to Africa. We are indoctrinated in the mindset of growing up to be an entrepreneur, doctor, lawyer, accountant, scientist—or some variation of the five—that made a lot of money. However, that was not for me. I always knew I didn’t fit into that mold. It might be the rebel in me, but I always knew I didn’t want to be in either of those professions. They all seemed so boring, tedious, and quite frankly… “regular” AF. Those who know me, know I am not regular. Plus, if I am pressured to do something, chances are I will not do it out of spite and based on principle.
But, I did everything my family wanted of me. Like a good African child, I graduated high school with honors, and went on to college and studied Toxicology in the hopes to become a Pharmacist or Forensic Scientist. In my last semester, I started applying for jobs, and turns out, just because you are on track to receive a Bachelor’s Degree does not guarantee you a federal job. No matter where I applied, it was the same response: “You have no government experience.” Out of something like panic and determination of absolutely NOT moving back home, not finding a job, and with a five-year abusive relationship as the cherry on top, I had to do something… anything… to get out of the situation I was in. So what did I do? In my last semester of college, I enlisted in the U.S. Army.
A beeline to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)
I graduated on Friday, May 4th, 2012, at 0900, and shipped out to Basic Training on Monday, May 7th. At 22-years-old, I didn’t know what in the world I was doing. After my grandmother passed, I kept to myself and became shy, quiet, reserved, whatever you want to call it. Not knowing what I wanted to do or be, I went with the flow. What’s the worst that could happen right? I originally enlisted to become a linguist to learn Serbian and Croatian. Given my aptitude for learning languages and proficiency in Yoruba and Spanish, it made sense. Turns out, that’s not what I am meant to do… I failed my Defense Language Proficiency Test by 4 points. Hey, that test was hard AF.
By chance and the power of the universe, I got re-classed to become an imagery analyst, but then I failed a block of instruction and had to meet with my long-time mentor Mr. Haney. Remember that thing I said earlier about failing? Yeah, that day I cried, and I cried hard; also turns out, I’m a catastrophizer. However, I think that day was the pivoting point that catapulted me on this trajectory. Here I am writing articles, stories and being all creative and shit.
Anyway, back to the story. Mr. Haney had mentioned this thing called “Group,” and how it is the most high-speed and coolest unit he had ever been to. In Group I would get to support cool missions and jump out of airplanes… I mean, what could be better than that? As a first-generation Service Member, I had no idea what in the world he was talking about. All I knew was that I was not about to cut her hair, and be G.I. Jane… turns out, I was wrong.
At this point in the imagery analyst course, I was about one-third through the schoolhouse, and apparently, Mr. Haney thought I would do very well at Group; not to mention that 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) is his military alma mater. He offered to help me talk to MI Branch, and put in a request to get me to Joint Base Lewis-McCord, and low and behold, I was on my way to be Special Operations Support in the First Special Forces Group! Mr. Haney was my first experience with someone who had been in the Special Operations Forces (SOF).
I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but there was something that set him apart from other NCOs I had encountered in my 18 months in service. Part of it was his genuine care for the Army, but most importantly, for its people. Mr. Haney and I still talk, and every so often when I go back to Ft. Huachuca, I offer to talk to his classes to help them understand they have one of the coolest jobs in the Army.
They Just Move a Little Different
The Army does a really good job with Initial Entry Soldiers in terms of breaking them down to build them back up as warriors. At basic training, I was taught to always be respectful to NCOs and Officers and to always do as you’re told with no questions asked. But that shit did not seem right to me. I mean… why can’t I ask questions? Why can’t I use my common sense and logic when things don’t make sense? And that’s where the friction point was. As a 24-year-old Specialist, with some life experience, you can’t just tell me to do something, and if it doesn’t make sense, for me to just do it. You will get questions, and if you can’t give me a straight or logical answer, well… good luck getting me to do anything you say.
Now fast forward to my first day at the First Special Forces Group. I was petrified; an E-4 in my first real Army unit. One thing I learned immediately was that there were the “Teams,” (those on the Operational Detachments-Alpha, or “A-Teams”), and the “not-Teams.” And furthermore, there were the “operators” (i.e. those Special Forces-qualified “Green Berets,”), and the “red-hat support bitches” in support specialties. As SOF Support, we didn’t get to exactly interact with the operators on the Teams very much, but as an Imagery Analyst, the Teams were one of our primary customers. The first Team bro I met was Jesse.
Jesse reminded me of a Tasmanian devil; short, stout, big/burly for no reason, and high energy ALL THE TIME! No matter what time of day it was, he was always on. Jesse also had this aura about him. It wasn’t only him though. Every single Team bro I met had the same aura about them… they just move a little differently. They were smart, funny, and encompassed the elite and professional character that makes a Green Beret, well… a Green Beret. It wasn’t only the Green Berets that had this aura. Almost every leader I have had during my time there, green or maroon beret, moved differently. The expertise within their crafts was noticeable, and autonomy and decision-making were on a level higher than I had ever witnessed in the Army.
The brothers I never wanted but glad I had
Throughout my three years at 1st SFG (A), I met and supported many green and maroon berets; hell I even fell for a few of them… but that’s a whole ‘nother story and not one for this book. I deployed to Iraq with First Group in 2015, where I got to work on some of the coolest missions and experienced some dangerous shit, the kinds of events that will make you rethink life sometimes. In my time overseas, I gained so much experience in my profession and grew as a person. And my Green Beret brothers helped me along the way.
Jesse took me to my first Promotion Board, at a time when it was almost unheard of for a Green Beret to take a support person to the board. Devin helped me study for said promotion board, was there when I got my “Dear Jane,” and continues to reinforce that I am the prize. Jesse and Michael were there when I witnessed my first act of terror; Bo was there when shit hit the fan in Iraq and provided me council when I felt like my world was crashing down. Josh, Melissa, Anthony, Ethan, Allie, Wayne…gosh, the list goes on. Many of whom, I am still close with. The support I received while in the community spoke to the level of familial love and trust that I gained. I don’t have any brothers, nor do I have many people close to me who truly have my best interest at heart.
This is why Group and the SOF Community as a whole will always be special to me. The ladies and gentlemen in this community have not only shaped me into the human I am now, but have molded me into the woman and officer I am today. I always joke and say I was raised by wolves, but these wolves accepted me into the wolf pack, the brotherhood, and made me a little rough around the edges. They taught me to be passionate, to always strive to do right by the unit, my morals, and values, and that it is okay to be smart, think for myself and want to be happy. To show up every damn day, and do the best I can. To use logic in everything I do, and that it is okay to be different. I am different; I choose what kind of officer and leader I want to be. Frankly, sometimes, you just gotta move a lil’ different.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 27, 2020.
Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Moriamo Sulaiman-Ifelodun is an active duty Army Officer stationed overseas. Although her undergraduate degree was in Biology with a focus in Toxicology, she is currently working on her Master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Georgetown University. She is interested in communications, social media, and the effect it has on the population and international relations. She enjoys telling stories through writing, photography, and film-making. She is a prior-service enlisted and previously completed a combat tour with the 1st Special Forces Group.
Additionally, she is a selfless servant and enjoys helping people in any way possible, specifically mental health challenges Service Members, and Veterans face on a daily basis. Her hobbies include outdoor adventures, history, education, reading, diving, Spartan racing, and she is an avid CrossFitter. Her articles in The Havok Journal represent her personal opinion and are not official positions of the U.S. Army or any other governmental entity.