By: Suzanne Rust
Photography by: Patrick Molnar
Looking for a career that would provide security for her kids and give her a sense of doing something worthwhile, Naomi Mathis, then a 23-year-old single mom, left her job as an administrative assistant and enlisted in the air force. But after three deployments—two to Kuwait and one to Baghdad—the realities of war, including an ambush in which she lost a fellow operator, shook her to the core. Six months after returning home, it became apparent that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2007 she was medically retired from the military. Since then, Naomi has married, grown her family and joined a church. She now works as a transition service officer for DAV (Disabled American Veterans), helping men and women who’ve served return to civilian life, both practically and emotionally. Naomi shares what it’s like to be a military mom.
Describe your family in three words.
Loving, compassionate, resilient.
What’s the best thing about being a parent? What’s the most challenging?
The satisfaction you get when you see that your sacrifices are worth it. For example, when your kids have the chance to make a decision on their own and, based on what you’ve taught them, they make the right one. Seeing them prosper and use the tools you’ve given them. The most challenging thing is negative outside influences: trying to make sure that yours is the only voice your children hear. Another challenge is getting them to understand that you’ve made mistakes and having them learn from the lessons you’ve picked up over the years.
What do you love most about your kids? Which of their qualities do you admire?
I love how fun my children are and the witty things they say at the most unexpected times. They’re all different. I admire Carmen’s respect for us, her resiliency and her ability to tell the truth in any situation. With Sabrine, it’s her wit, tenacity, loving spirit and ability to have fun. With Daniel, it’s his intelligence, talent and ability to excel at whatever he really puts his mind to. And I admire Raelyn’s loving nature, willingness to learn, compassion for others and candidness.
What do you enjoy doing with your family?
We definitely enjoy a good board game—we’re all very competitive. We’re also huge movie junkies! Our family likes to do community outreach, showing love to those who maybe feel they aren’t loved or haven’t heard the words “I love you” in a long time. We also enjoy taking trips together to see our extended family in Florida or even just visiting the zoo in New Orleans.
When are you the happiest?
In church, spending time laughing with my family and reaching out to the community.
What drew you to a military career?
I was looking for something different that would provide benefits for my two kids, and something that would make me feel that I’d made a difference at the end of the day.
What was it like being away from your family on such dangerous missions? How did you cope?
I disconnected myself emotionally from my kids when I left. I kind of went into robot mode. I would do whatever needed to be done to make sure the kids were taken care of while I was gone, and then I would solely focus on the mission at hand. Because of the nature of my field, I couldn’t focus on anything else. If I did, someone could get hurt, including me. When I deployed, I put a picture of my kids at the bottom of a backpack I carried, and I wouldn’t really look at it. I just knew it was there, so they were with me. I limited my calls to home. This detachment helped me cope.
How has being in the military shaped you as a person?
It taught me discipline, how to sacrifice and how to focus. I learned how to have a passion for something and really run with it. The military gave me a sense of camaraderie and taught me how to depend on others—to really trust them with my life. I gained a lifelong extended family. It taught me how to lead and how to follow, all at the same time.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my kids: how resilient they are, their ability to accept change and make the best of a situation. I’m also proud of my husband: how he accepted me just the way I am, and his willingness to work through any residual issues from my military service. And I’m proud of how God has changed me and made me come so far as a person.
What do you want people to know most about the things you experienced in Kuwait and Bagdad, and about PTSD?
The things we experience in combat are terrible, whether it be the loss of a friend and colleague, such as Staff Sergeant Patrick Griffin Jr., or the bombs dropping all around you or the gunfire. However, except for losing Staff Sergeant Griffin, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. It helped make me who I am today. It helped me have a better appreciation for life, friends and family. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew I was making a life-altering decision. I was willing to lay down my own life for the freedom we have as Americans. Having to deal with flashbacks and other symptoms is a small price to pay. Every time I look at this family, I realize the sacrifices I made were worth it.
PTSD is like a wound. When you first get cut, you have to stop the bleeding. You seek aid, and if the wound is especially deep, you get professional help. Eventually, it will scab, and if you pick at that scab, it will bleed again. However, if you continue to seek help and treat the wound, the scab will heal and fall off. What you are left with is a scar, which will always be there. PTSD never really goes away. You figure out how to cope with it, deal with it and learn from it. It has helped me to help others—at work I can relate to those who may be dealing with the same issues. I’ve come to understand that I’ve got a PTSD diagnosis but PTSD is not who I am.
If you know someone who may be showing PTSD symptoms, please talk to them. If they won’t talk, there are resources out there where they can get help. Sometimes we veterans and military types feel most comfortable speaking with other veterans and military people. Have them reach out to their local VA Vet Center or VA Medical Center. No matter how far they push you away, stick it out with them. It will get better if they seek treatment.
So many people want to support the military. What’s the best way to do that?
For me the best thing was when someone would see me in uniform and say “Thank you for your service.” That always put a smile on my face no matter what kind of day I was having. Knowing that I was making a difference gave me satisfaction.
Reach out to an organization that is sending care packages overseas. We loved getting goodies in the mail! Maybe you don’t have access to many military people; then reach out to veterans’ service organizations such as the DAV, which are doing wonderful things. Lastly, vote! Make sure your legislators hear your voice. Push them to support the men and women who serve this country.
What do you know now that you wished you had known when you were younger?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be comfortable with where you are and take it all in. Find the lesson that you need to learn from any given situation, rather than giving in to your emotions.