FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 13, 2016) -- Staff Sgt. Tierra Brown of the 392nd Army Band sang the national anthem to open the nationally televised CNN town hall here featuring President Barack Obama Sept. 28.
To the millions who tuned into the show focusing on veteran and military issues, she probably appeared to be just another Soldier singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The vocalist, however, was more than another military member honoring the nation’s heritage. She is among the roughly 10-percent of those who served tours in Southwest Asia and are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
PTSD is a condition caused by traumatic events such as those frequently occurring during military deployments. The commander-in-chief outlined his efforts to deal with the phenomena during the show, highlighting a robust directive to destigmatize PTSD and a corresponding resource package to make it easier for military members and veterans to get help.
Brown, who served in Afghanistan in 2012, said her tour there and various other factors weakened her ability to cope with the stresses of the military and life. The mother of four said she secretly carried the burden of her affliction for some time – unbeknownst to others but her husband, Byron.
“I was in a dark place, and because I didn’t want people to look at me as weak, I didn’t say anything to anybody outside of my husband,” noting she was tempted to give up on her vocalist responsibilities. “I started going to behavioral health, but I was ashamed because I felt like I was weak.”
In protecting her secret, Brown’s veneer needed to shine. That meant making the picture look pretty; mustering up the dignified demeanor, confidence and skill required to vocally articulate the nation’s patriotic ballad, which constitutes the bulk of her work as a vocalist. The cover-up became a most arduous task in and of itself.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I was just fighting to get up every day, fighting to have a smile on my face in front of everybody who had no idea that I was going through. I was going through the motions of life just because I had to; people had expectations – you’re a singer so you’ve got to get out there and sing.”
Brown received the invitation to sing the national anthem for the town hall one day prior. The North Carolina native got word via cellphone texts and voicemails while she was sitting in a meeting. When she finally got time to check the messages, she was flabbergasted.
“I took a lot of deep breaths, and I had this really big smile on my face,” she said. “I was feeling like, wow, what is this? And I responded with ‘Yes, I would be willing to sing the national anthem.’ It took me a little bit of time (to consider the request) because it was a really, really big opportunity.”
Brown waited at least 10 minutes before giving an answer.
“One thing is I wanted to make sure I wasn’t tripping, wasn’t dreaming,” she said with a chuckle. “I had to go back and look at the messages. I guess I was trying to process everything. Nervousness kind of set in a little bit, too.”
Brown tamed her nerves with humility, opting to not tell anyone and not to make a big deal of what was considerably a huge offer.
“I really didn’t say anything to anyone around the unit,” she said. “I was very happy, but at the same time, I am very humble and modest. I tried to treat it as just another mission although it wasn’t, but that was one of the things I did to keep myself calm in a way to put on the best performance I could.”
If Brown had not kept her nerves in check, perhaps she would have thought about the millions of potential viewers, and the fact she was representing on national TV the U.S. military, the Army, her command, her unit and herself in the presence of arguably the most powerful person in the world. A performance flub probably would not have gone over well. Any doubts she could not pull off the performance, however, were smothered with resolve.
“I put those thoughts in a little box with all the other negative thoughts I sometimes have,” she said. “I buried it and didn’t let it take over me.”
Indeed, Brown saw her opportunity as a part of a larger scheme; something akin to destiny. First of all, she was fortunate enough to change jobs and serve with the band although she had 12 years of service, something that does not frequently occur so late in an enlisted career.
Secondly, she became only the second person to attend vocalist military occupational specialty training, thanks to a new program, she said.
Third, she was assigned to familiar grounds, the installation where she received training as an automated logistical specialist years ago, and the place chosen by the White House to stage a town hall in the last year of the president’s historic run.
“I was feeling very, very grateful,” she said, putting her thoughts in perspective prior to the performance. “I believe in God, and he aligned it perfectly. How did I end up at Fort Lee in the band when the president of the United States – the first African-American president –comes here, and I was able to sing the national anthem?
“All of this is running through my head,” she continued, sniffling and struggling to hold back tears. “I was also thinking about all the things I’ve been through the past few months – depression, anxiety and PTSD. The past few months have been trying and testing and not a lot of people knew about it. I was thinking like, wow! Look what God has done for me in the midst of all the issues I’m going through. It made me even more humble.”
Minutes before her performance, Brown said she was confident but nervous.
“I kept praying, ‘God, have your way, and let the sound that comes out touch somebody in some kind of way, and let your glory reflect off of me,’” she recalled. “I say that prayer before all of my performances because I want to be used in the right way, regardless of whatever the situation is – let his glory shine through and reach somebody in some type of way. It really wasn’t about me. I don’t take it for granted or downplay it, but I went in like I do this all the time. Do what I know to do, and God will get the glory and praise out of my life regardless.”
As it turned out, Brown’s alto was strong from the first note to the last. Her newly installed enlisted leader, 1st Sgt. Gary Yurgans, said he did not see the performance but previously knew of her abilities. He was confident Brown would represent well.
“She’s one of the best I’ve ever heard,” he said. “There was no doubt she’d go in and knock it out of the park.”
Brown said the anthem is not an easy number despite the numerous times she has performed it.
“The climax is so powerful and sometimes it’s a struggle,” she said, “but I tried to sing it with a pure heart and not try to put myself in it. I just let the words do the justice. His glory shined through the entire time.”
Indeed, Brown said the experience gave rise to her voice as an advocate for those needing help for PTSD.
“I truly believe I was put in this position because God wants to use me in that way,” she said. “That was his way of opening some doors for me that nobody else can close. And it wasn’t just for me to go through them. It was definitely for me to reach somebody else.”
Brown said she received many accolades as a result of her performance. She said also it was a watershed moment, one that gave her the courage to fight on.
“It (PTSD) is part of who I am, and I’m not going to let it defeat me,” she said. “I’m not going to let it define me. I can overcome it.”
A video clip of Brown’s performance can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/armyFortlee.