CHARMAINE AUSTIN — Journalist, top soldier, army official
LIKE the rat that will risk any trap for a piece of cheese, Charmaine Austin won't turn down an opportunity to practise journalism. So when she saw an advertisement recruiting a broadcast journalist for the US army, she signed up, not realising that she was instead about to embark on an illustrious career as an army official.
"It was my dream to be a journalist. From the age of 10, I knew I wanted to be a journalist," she told All Woman. Austin had migrated to the US after 10 years as a sports reporter at the Jamaica Observer and Daily Gleaner. She said she had no idea she was required to become a soldier in order to report from the front line, and by the time this fact hit her, she had already signed up the enlistment contract and was being shipped off to South Carolina for 10 weeks of training.
"I thought I was going to be with the soldiers on the front line like Christiane Amanpour. I used to watch her and be like, 'oh my God, I want to do that', because she was everywhere. As long as there was a war she was there, so I was like, 'I could be like her, but I would be like a Jamaican in the midst of war, reporting from the front line'," she said.
The army life was clearly not what the 36-year-old single mother had envisioned for herself, but after realising her mistake in signing up the contract, she just decided to adapt. Now, five years in, she is happy she decided to stick it out.
Last year June, she was given the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Soldier of the Year award for the San Diego Chapter. Austin also received special recognition from Congress and a special presentation of a US flag that was flown in her honour over the White House around that same time.
Other notable awards she received over the years include the Army Achievement Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Expert Marksmanship Badge and the Physical Fitness Excellence Badge. Just two weeks ago she received the Leader of the Year Award for non-commissioned officers in the public health command district of San Diego.
Austin was completely unprepared for the army at first, although she was raised in Olympic Gardens, a tough west St Andrew inner-city community which has been the battleground for several gang-related wars over the years. Her nickname while growing up was 'Stooshy', so the idea of dressing up in army garb and getting dirty like the other recruits did not appeal to her. After just a few weeks in training camp, her new nickname became "Army Barbie".
"When I started I couldn't do one push up so my first test, I failed. I needed a minimum of 15 to pass and I got a big fat zero. Sit-ups, I couldn't pass. Running, I couldn't run for anything. But they trained you and 10 weeks of training brought you up to standard," she said.
The temptation to give up was strong during the first few weeks, but she didn't want to become a failure and so she decided to give it her all. One of the plans she devised was to have the other soldiers teach her their fitness techniques in exchange for braiding their hair. Although the group was exhausted after completing 10 hours of training daily, they would gather in the barracks at night to exchange these services.
"They would say, 'OK, you braid my hair so it can last me for the rest of week', and each person would show me their different styles. That's how I learned," she explained.
At the end of the 10 weeks, Austin was not perfect, but she was good enough to make the cut and was assigned to become a food inspector, as opposed to going on the front line as she had initially wanted.
"The only thing I had interest in regarding food was eating it. I didn't want to inspect any food, it's not like I was writing about the food," said the soldier, who currently serves as a food inspection sergeant at a naval base in San Diego, California.
It wasn't until sometime after that she came to appreciate the value of the work she does in ensuring that food ordered by the US government for its army officials is safe for consumption.
"When I got to realise how much you really have to sacrifice as a broadcast journalist in the army, I was like no, I don't think I can, because you are out there with the infantrymen; you are right there in the battle," she said.
Over time, Austin got better at the fitness tests and was able to master the various techniques to the point where she started to win every board competition organised by the army. She became a force to be reckoned with as she consistently ranked above the other soldiers in physical fitness, character, exemplary military bearing, academic accomplishments and military achievements.
So when it came time for her commanders to select someone to represent the army district, she was chosen and eventually copped the Soldier of the Year Award. She said it came as no surprise to her colleagues that a Jamaican had beat them.
"People like Usain Bolt make a recommendation for Jamaicans being the best in everything," she said.
In addition to carrying out her duties as an army official, Austin made sure to pursue a double major in psychology and sociology at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. She also has an associate degree in psychology from that university as well as a diploma in media and communication from Carimac, UWI.
Despite the fact that she is much older than most of the other soldiers she works with, Austin says she does not have any plans to leave the army soon. She does not intend to give up on journalism either because that's her true passion.
"I think it's the only thing I know how to do — write. Some people have 10,000 passions, and that's the only one I got," she said.
She recalls how she would promise her mother she was going to be a journalist during the earlier years of her life when the family situation grew dim. Her mother had earned an income cleaning the floors at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and doing whatever else she could to provide for them.
"Mommy made sure that if nothing else we went to school and got an education," she said. It was a dream come through when at 17 years old she was given the opportunity to become a sports journalist at the Jamaica Observer. After seven years, she went to the Gleaner and spent three years there before migrating in 2004 to Florida. She was fortunate to land a job writing for the Forum Publishing Group, which is a subsidiary of the Sun Sentinel newspaper.
"I have come a long way, the army is nowhere I would have imagined myself to be," she said. "It's just been really exciting. It's tough as hell, but I keep pushing myself because I want to know how far I can go as a person. I want to see how far I can go and as I am in charge of soldiers, I want to see them push themselves."