OKEECHOBEE — Born in West Branch, Mich., but raised in Florida, Melissa Johnson-Martinez moved to Okeechobee when she was about 12 years old, and said she has always loved it here. During her high school years, she said she would describe herself as a little mischievous, not a bad kid, but she barely graduated. She was at a point in her life where she was very rebellious.
At the end of her junior year, she met a recruiter, James Monroe, and he changed her life. He was very down to earth. She met him at a college fair at the high school, and at that time, she was very heavy, she said, weighing about 220 pounds. Mr. Monroe talked to her about the service, and she told him she wasn’t interested. Her dad was a Marine, and her uncle was in the Army. She said, “No, I don’t want to do that. That’s a guy thing. I’m not into that.” He kept talking to her though, about all the different opportunities, especially with college. She kept telling him no.
During her senior year, there was a lecture or something the Army recruiters were putting on, and he talked her into letting him pick her up and take her. She realized the benefits were amazing, she said, and she got excited. She decided she was going to join. She went for her first MEPS (military entrance processing station) appointment and found out she was very overweight.
So, Mr. Monroe worked with her every single day. They walked together. They ran on Saturdays. He taught her to wrap herself with saran wrap so she would sweat more. He prepared her so she would be ready to go in. She finally got to the point where she was only ten pounds away from her goal, and they let her sign her papers in December 1999. Mr. Monroe went with her, and it was so exciting, she said.
Her senior year of high school, she didn’t have a prom date, and Mr. Monroe went with her. “He had become a really good friend by then,” she said. “That’s one memory I will always remember from my childhood. I have even tried to find him over the years.” She remembers how hard he worked with her and how patient he was, and she said he never lied to her. He told her it would be one of the hardest things she would ever do, but she didn’t believe him.
She left in August, and when she arrived at basic training, she was absolutely terrified, she said. “It was the most horrifying thing. I was really, really scared.” She was away from home for the first time in her whole life and didn’t know anyone, but once she got in there and got into the program, she realized they were all new there too. Most of them felt the same way, and there were so many different types of people, people from all over the world.
She went in as a food service specialist which is like a cook, and she loved it. After basic, she was down to 145 pounds. Her family and friends at home kept in touch by writing letters, and she said it meant the world to her to have those letters during basic training. When she went to AIT (advanced individual training), in Fort Lee, Va., it was the most fun she has ever had in her entire life. They went to school with Marines. There, classes were half Army and half Marines, so she got to meet even more people from different backgrounds and environments. She thought Army training was tough, but Marine Corps was unbelievable, she said.
She still maintains contact with the friends she made in basic training. They were training the buddy system, and they were trained to have their buddy’s “six” (back) at all times, she said. She has been through some really rough things throughout her life, even after she got out of the service, and those friends were there for her.
After her AIT, she was stationed in Savannah, Ga., and it was beautiful. She was with the aviation battalion, and she loved it. There was so much to see, and she had so much fun. She met even more people. She never really had female friends before then, but being stuck in a room with 62 other women, eating with them, showering with them, sleeping with them, you learn how to get along with women, she said. She worked in the mess hall and got up at 3 or 4 in the morning and cooked breakfast, or she would work the evening shift. It was like a job. You did your job, then went to PT (physical training), then went home where you could do whatever you wanted.
In 2002, she got pregnant and had a lot of complications so she got medically discharged. She didn’t want to completely give up the military so she went into the reserves and was stationed in West Palm because she lived in Okeechobee. She went one weekend a month and then two weeks a year even while pregnant. She didn’t think active duty would work for her because she was a single mom. You have to sign over custody of your child to someone else in case you are deployed, she said. Sept. 11, 2001 (9/11) had happened, and she was scared for her child, so she came back home.
She went to school to become a CNA and worked at the nursing home for about a year and then started doing home health. She did that up until about two years ago when she started having some medical problems. She has had several surgeries in the last two years and is not physically able to work as a CNA. She started her own business designing T-shirts and tumblers and things like that from home, where she can be with her kids, she said. She has four children, three girls and one boy. She got married and they have been together for almost 17 years.
She has read some of the stories of the veterans like Red Larson and others who served during war times, and she has had friends come back with PTSD, and she is grateful she did not have to go through that.
One thing the service taught her was loyalty and discipline. She went from being completely rebellious to being a very disciplined person. It taught her a work ethic. She has never been fired from a job, and they have always wanted her to stay. “If I hadn’t gone in the service, I don’t know if I would be alive right now. I think the Army saved me.”