A Soldier’s Can-Do Attitude Exemplifies the Spirit of Small-Town America
America is a big country, and it is easy to overlook the tiny places and the people that make this land special. If you want to experience the off-the-beaten-path areas of this country, travel 40 minutes east of Charlotte, North Carolina and you may find Burnsville on North Carolina Highway 742 south, a little-known township in Anson County.
There’s no need for pretense in a township of under 2,000 people and a footprint of just under 49 square miles. You will find a fire station, one gas station, plenty of trees, but no restaurants. The Anson High School is located in nearby Wadesboro.
While you won’t find much to do in Burnsville, you will come across real down-home folks like Tameka Horne, who was born and raised there. She appears on my computer screen at 2:00 p.m. on June 29, 2022. She is at her parent’s home in Polkton, North Carolina, 45 minutes southeast of Charlotte.
Like a NASCAR driver coming in for a scheduled pitstop, Tameka, a former “straight A“ student in high school, is visiting her parents before reporting to her next duty station (work assignment in civil speak) at Fort Bliss, Texas, where she will attend the Sergeants Major Academy, the world's premier and elite institution for the education of noncommissioned officers.
Out of their uniforms, soldiers are regular people. Tameka, 40, the only child of Rayvon and Margaret Horne, is wearing a black tank top, showcasing her toned arms. Her hair is held in place with a neon green headband. She is wearing glasses and has an ordinary black watch on her right wrist. The virtual background is a modern office, with glass walls accented by a horizontal black trim.
Tameka’s accent is southern, with a warm and friendly tone. Each sentence comes out of her mouth slowly, like a Sunday afternoon, as the Southern expression goes. She smiles often.
I always wanted to travel to get away from my small community because there’s not much around here.
A New Life
When Tameka was in high school, Margaret Horne introduced her to the idea of enlisting into the Army. As is often the case in small towns lacking opportunities, Tameka faced a tough decision: stay or go. Before deciding, Tameka examined the pros and cons of going to college versus the military. She said, “I always wanted to travel to get away from my small community because there’s not much around here.” While not an easy decision, she thought, “Maybe I just need to give it a shot.”
She had only one stipulation in enlisting; she had to be behind a computer. Her Army recruiter promised he would find the right job, which turned out to be as a transportation coordinator.
After graduating from Anson High School in May 1999, it was official. She entered the United States Army on June 22, 1999. She enlisted to broaden her view of the world, to learn new skills that would land her a job after a four-year stretch, and to do something positive with her life.
The reality was frightening. “Oh, my God! I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” It was real; boot camp was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Tameka has no reservation about letting you know she is a homebody. “I love to be in the house.” The shock of boot camp was like an ice bath. For Tameka, the issue was not discipline. She received plenty of that from her mother, who “just kept me on point.” She feared the physical activities, such as running, being out in the wilderness, and the “extremist activities.”
She knew she had “no control of what’s going to happen each day; you just run with it.” Her drill sergeants were intimidating. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. Lord, just get me through it.’ I just prayed my way through it.” One of her morale boosters was eating “chow” at breakfast, lunch and dinner. She says, “We ate good, but we ate fast.”
We are almost done.’
The women had to stick together at boot camp because the men outnumbered them. Tameka says, “We definitely had to be as one.” She remembers times when the women were crying and saying, “I can’t take this anymore.” Back then, she was a positive, motivating force to the other women. “I would always be like, ‘We got one more day down. Just keep it together. We are almost done.’”
As she describes it, Tameka had a “battle buddy,” Melinda Iketau. They were close. But like most things in the Army, permanence is an illusion. One day the buddies had to fight each other with a pugil stick, a heavily padded pole-like weapon that simulates bayonet fighting. Tameka dreaded that day, and her face mirrors the remembered horror as she relates the incident. Melinda would get the best of Tameka, knocking her down several times. No hard feelings remain between the two, just fond memories.
Reflecting on her experience, she has a lot of respect for the work her drill sergeants did. It wasn’t easy. These days, Tameka’s work is complex, with many moving parts. Her job could be defined as running the military’s version of FedEx. She describes the work as managing “anything that needs to be moved.” Her team, which has included nearly 270 military personnel at times, is responsible for shipping it, tracking it, and calculating how long it will take to get from point A to B— equipment and supplies worth billions.
During her career, Tameka has been deployed five times: once each to Thailand (Cobra Gold 2001) during peacetime, Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom 2004-2005) and Kuwait (Operating Iraqi and Enduring Freedom 2007-2008), and twice to Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom 2011-2012 and Operation Freedom's Sentinel 2019-2020) during wartime.
Before her first wartime deployment, she was nervous and remembered the question she had asked her mother when she was considering joining the military: “Are you going to send your only child to the Army to get shot at?”
Tameka talked to a friend to prepare her mind to be in a war zone. He said, “We have to do this, you know. I’m just as afraid as you are, but I’m going to get through it.”
She says, “I have to be honest. It is an eyeopener when you’re given a weapon with real ammunition, and you have to defend yourself, your peers, and your organization. Nothing prepares you for that.” Her faith gave her strength. “I went on faith and courage, and I just told my parents to pray for us, and I’ll come back home,” she said. And she made it back.
John Cougar Mellencamp’s song “Small Town” is an anthem for small-town America. The song describes places where there are few opportunities. He sings:
No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be
Every community has a place where people go to be part of the larger community. If you drive down 742 south, you’ll find one such place in Polkton. The Burnsville Learning and Community Center, a nonprofit organization, is located on the corner across from the fire station and a water tower that can be seen for miles. The front of the building is red brick, and the rest of the structure is painted light blue, with a large brown cross.
This center was established in 1993 as a meeting place for sundry needs such as after-school care, food pantry outreach, adult classes, spiritual devotion and general meeting space. Carol Smith is the founder and volunteer director.
I reach Carol Smith on the telephone. She says, “Hey, how are you?” Her positive energy flows through the phone line. I ask her how she knows Tameka. She replies, “Oh my God, she’s part of the Burnsville community—been knowing Tameka ever since she was maybe about five years old.” Her voice has the sincerity of a mature adult who has lived a long life.
She makes it clear that “we are a rural area, very rural in Anson County.” She praises Tameka’s parents for contributing a big part to what the center does. And describes Rayvon as a construction worker who makes repairs in the community center. Carol says, “I really like his work, and he’s very supportive and does a lot to help.” She refers to him as a “young man.” Rayvon and Margaret are retired and in their 60s. Carol, who is in her 70s, is retired but remains active as a beautician.
I ask Carol if she is surprised at what Tameka has achieved. “To be honest with you, in a way, I am, and in a way, I’m not.” Expanding on her answer, she says she’s surprised because, “I’ve seen her bloom from a kid to a middle-grade student to high school, not having a career path, like maybe a lot of students have had in their life.” From Carol’s perspective, Tameka wanted to travel and continue to learn, “but she didn’t want the classroom experience.”
Continuing with the second half of her answer, she says, “I’m not surprised because of the drive that she has exemplified in the community. She’s just the student that, I don’t know, a lot of times when children are in rural, isolated communities, there are students that a lot of times are left out of a lot of things that would expose them to maybe doing more or advancing them further.”
Tameka made the best of her situation. “She has done that. It has helped her, through her traveling, through being a leader, to being involved with other people because Burnsville is a community that, really to me, didn’t have a lot to offer young people,” says Carol.
I’m about to get emotional.
Tameka is all about that small-town life and family and appreciates her journey. She serves her community by volunteering at the center. The strong 5’-11’ soldier becomes sensitive. She says, “I’m about to get emotional,” when she talks about Carol Smith and what she has done for the community. It touches her heart because Carol is a role model for her.
Carol gets emotional herself when she learns of Tameka’s feelings about her. “I guess you just see how we try to keep things going with little funding.”
As an elder of her community, Carol wants children to know “they are valued first, to know that there is nothing impossible for them to accomplish, if they work hard, if they apply themselves, to realize that just because they are in a rural, small, isolated community, with disadvantages, they are still able to bring light into their lives and the lives of others. Nothing is impossible for the betterment of society.”
Tameka is living Margaret’s dream because Margaret’s mother wouldn’t allow her to go into the military. “She always wanted to go into the military,” says Tameka. She adds, “I guess you can say that through me, she is living the things she wanted to do in her life.”
Today, 1,333,822 active military personnel are spread across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force and Coast Guard. The Army has 481,000, or 36.1% of the active-duty force.
The Army has helped Tameka transcend the boundaries of her small-time life. Because she was such a homebody, Rayvon made it clear she had to have her own life. “You’re not going to be a boomerang kid,” he would say to Tameka, meaning she was not coming back to live with her parents. That stuck with Tameka.
The Army has been a place where Tameka has excelled. While serving, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the American Military University and a master’s degree from Liberty University. In addition, she has completed over two dozen military courses. Her awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, The Military Order of Saint Christopher and the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club—she is running out of space on her uniform, and her bio is forever expanding.
The military has given Tameka something more precious than medals. She has made lifelong friendships. She met Sergeant Major Keyshun Kittles-Joyner in 2015 while deployed in South Korea. They would see each other again in Kuwait.
Keyshun, 48, was raised in Smithtown, New York, on Long Island. She and Tameka call each other “sisters” for their shared bond. They both are active in the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, an organization for enlisted non-commissioned officers (NCO). She says, “I’m thankful that God allowed her to branch out her wings. I always tell her because we would have never got to meet somebody that unique.”
Keyshun, who has dealt with depression, health issues and other struggles, describes Tameka as an angel and legit. “But when you’re around her, there is always hope.” In the past, she has met people who speak but don’t walk it in their everyday life. Tameka does. Keyshun is in awe because Tameka never seems to have a bad day. She always brings that positive energy.
The military is dominated by white men. As someone who has been in the military for 27 years, Keyshun says, “I feel in my heart we should be a little bit further than we are. We already proved that there’s not anything that we can’t accomplish.” The military continues to struggle with a host of issues from same-sex marriage, transgender people, and equal access to career advancement for women and people of color.
Regarding how far Tameka can go, Keyshun believes she can make it to Sergeant Major of the United States Army, even though no woman has ever held this position. Historically, men who achieved this rank have been in the infantry and served in a combat zone. It will be a big mountain to climb for a woman to get there, especially an NCO.
“I look at it like this,” says Keyshun. “I tell everybody it hasn’t been an easy road for me, right? So it’s kind of like, you got to prove yourself, and you got to prove yourself to the women.” She is contemplating retiring in the future but is happy to pass the torch to Tameka.
I feel in my heart we should be a little bit further than we are.
The U.S. Army opened up the world to Tameka. She has grown from a sheltered girl growing up in a small town to a decorated military hero who has seen the world. Tameka says, “I was even afraid to travel by myself from Colorado to Texas when I was stationed there.” The transformation is real. And she did it with the help of her “sisters,” her community, family—and prayer.
Tameka’s original four-year plan is now 23 years in the making. An exit plan is forming and could be as soon as two years. She is exploring several entrepreneurial ventures, including selling insurance and financial products or starting an Amazon business and an online boutique.
The military uniform means everything to this soldier. She loves to be of service. Whatever she does in the future, she wants to continue to empower women and people in general.
Tameka says, “ I can honestly say that I know for sure that I made the best decision in my life to join the United States Army. I have no regrets. I love what I do. I love defending my country. I love giving back to the community to my soldiers who need that mentorship in their life that maybe they never had.
“And so I’m just grateful that I’m here, and I know that God will continue to bless me as I move forward in my career. I’m just living what we call the American dream.”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.