News Search

4,839 Miles In His Shoes

  • Published
  • By by Staff Sgt. Laura Montgomery
  • 145th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
During a drizzly Super Drill at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, January 13, 2019, the familiar taps echoed on the floor as U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Francis Strother rounded the corner into his office where Tech. Sgt. Nathan Clark and I eagerly awaited to hear his story unfold; his 4,839 mile journey from Liberia to The United States of America and how he became an ambassador for the North Carolina Air National Guard.

Born in 1974, Monrovia, Liberia, Tech. Sgt. Strother grew up as a pastor’s son with his cares and needs met. He and his family lived with modern comforts including a driver, and a cook. In 1989, a civil war broke out, lasting 8 years, and claiming more than 200,000 lives. At the age of 14, he became the provider for he and his two brothers as they separated from their father. 

“One day, I was arrested by a soldier who thought I was a rebel, and before my dad left, he told the soldier I was not a rebel,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “I was wearing jeans and, in Liberia, there is a stigma that if you wear jeans you are a rebel. A woman who lived nearby, and spoke the same language as the soldier, told the soldier I was not a rebel and she tried to give him money to let me go. He told her they were going to kill me. They tied me up and took me to the beach-side barracks in Monrovia. My brothers and father were crying. The tied me up so hard my chest was popping out and I just felt like my spirit was leaving my body. My dad went to his store, grabbed all the money out of the register, and gave it to the man. They let me go and I told my dad that it would be better if we split up because if they [soldiers or rebels] found a house full of men like us, they would think we are against them. We stayed with a lady and her children that lived nearby and was a friend of my father; we had nothing, no food.”

Following the separation of Tech. Sgt. Strother from his father, he describes having to drink dirty rain water, his brother William getting sick then catching Cholera, and making a plan to sell beer crates from his father’s store in order to get money for food. 

“I loaded the crates into the rusty wheelbarrow, and headed across the island to a factory that was still producing beer for the rebels,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “I met a peacekeeper from Ghana who gave me twenty U.S. dollars, and trusted me with it to buy him Guinness when I got to the factory. I walked about 45 miles or so; walking, pushing the wheelbarrow, and a man stopped me wanting to buy the crates. His name was Sonny; he put me in his truck and took me to the factory to buy the Guinness for the peacekeeper. Sonny dropped me back off where he originally picked me up, and when I told him we didn’t have any food, he gave me some rice and told me if I come back to him every day, he would give me some food.”

After delivering the beer to the peacekeeper, he told Tech. Sgt. Strother to come back every day and he would give him bread and sugar. After many nights of falling asleep crying from hunger, he was surprised and happy to have people helping him and his brothers.

“I had to go back out for more food, and so I would walk to the peacekeeper compound and back which was like getting up at 6 a.m. and walking until 8 p.m. I had to wear flip-flops, or shower shoes as we call them here in America, but they had holes underneath. Sometimes I had to walk barefoot. I went to Sonny and he wanted to help me. He gave me rice and bread, which I crushed all of it up, then stuffed it and hid it in my pants, because if you were caught with it, people would take it from you.”

Feeling led, Tech. Sgt. Strother instead, went to find the lady who had initially helped save his life when the soldier caught him. She was staying with her brother, who was a General in the Armed Forces of Liberia. Strother bravely told the soldiers at the barracks that he was there to visit family, relying on word of mouth for directions in hope of finding the lady and her sick daughter. He gave the woman and her daughter food and promised to continue helping them.

“One time, while going back and forth delivering food to her family, a shooting fire broke out,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “I had to fake my death, lay under dead bodies while men massacred these people. I fell asleep and the next day I went to Sonny, telling him I didn’t think I could come back again. But something in my spirit said I had to help people. I missed my mom, I missed my dad, and I missed the good life we used to have. All I could do was say the Bible verse we used to say before we ate, Psalms 23.”

Tech. Sgt. Strother went back to the man who bought his crates and gave him food for assistance following the attack.

“Sonny told me to stay with him,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother, “Sonny grew up in Lebanon and spoke Arabic; he grew up fighting in the Christian-Muslim War. He was doing really well and owned a compound. Sonny took me in, asked me to wash his clothes, and went to work in the compound. I found a bunch of money while doing his laundry, and when he came home, I told him about the money. He said it wasn’t his money, it was my money. We went back and forth and then he finally took the money away. I think it was a test but, from that day forward, Sonny trusted me in the compound and even gave me a key. Sonny got involved with a warlord because he is a great mechanic; he is where I learned my skills from.”

At 16 years-old, Tech. Sgt. Strother worked out trades with the warlords between his mechanical skills and food for his family and people at the compound. He worked on generators and vehicles; it was very dangerous and he was missing his father and mother. 

Tech. Sgt. Strother managed to get word to his father that he was doing well and wished to see him. However, his father didn’t look the same as when they’d last seen each other and it broke him down. Sonny helped Strother get his father clothes, money, and food; instructing his father to go back to his brothers. Strother told his father to send his younger brother every day to come see him at the compound and pick up food, just as he did before. Now that he had his father back, and had help feeding his family, Strother looked towards education to further himself. 

“I started 7th grade at age 16. I graduated from high school at age 23 and from 7th grade to 12th grade I paid for my own tuition out of my pocket. While I was in school, I paid other people’s tuition because I had the means,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother.

In order to be able to pay for tuition for himself and others, Tech. Sgt. Strother worked hard for Sonny as a mechanic and drove a forklift. Tech. Sgt. Strother continued to put his best foot forward and aimed for success in school and work. There were difficult roads ahead and the journey literally wasn’t always easy. 

“The shoes I used to wear to high school busted underneath, where, if you put your foot in you could see all your toes. To cover it up, you put newspaper in your shoes which, if it’s dry season is good, but it rains a lot over there, so now water is soaking into your shoes and that’s how you go to school. When I was with Sonny, I used to drive the forklift to school, but when I was finishing school, I started tutoring to make money for transportation. I used to walk about 10 miles to school, if it was dry, my shoes would be good.”

“Before I could graduate, I met this man at the bank and he asked me to tutor his three daughters that went to Catholic school. The dad put me on salary and then I could start taking a cab or bus to school. One day, I walked up to the American Embassy and I saw this cool guy with muscles and glasses; he threw candy down on the ground. I was so hungry. So I said, one day if I get a chance to come to America, I’m going to join the military. There was a program called the diversity lottery at the American Embassy, where they bring people to America. My friend and I took a cab to the Embassy and we were one of the first people in line for the lottery; I missed my final exam for high school. I went to my teacher and was able to make it up. I always used to remind myself, I hope things would be better.”

Tech. Sgt. Strother’s uncle Solomon guided him with the diversity lottery form, they prayed about it and his uncle paid his $175 application fee.

“If an opportunity is given to you, it’s what you do with that opportunity,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “I ran with that opportunity and did something good with it.”

“I came over May 14, 1998, and wanted to go to school immediately,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “My first job was working night shift in a Family Dollar warehouse, moving boxes, and I started one week after one week of being in the country. I remember going to eat at K&W cafeteria and I cried because I saw how people would waste and throw food away. I had culture shock and I wanted to go back to Africa. That year, I went to Central Piedmont Community College. I went to school for mechanical engineering after giving up the dream to be a doctor. I worked 2 jobs to pay for tuition and would normally sleep in my first class of the day. I was sending money back to my family, the family that put me on salary and helped me, and to Sonny.”

The second job at a Toyota dealership proved to be supportive and successful. The dealership offered to pay for Tech. Sgt. Strother’s classes as long as he passed them which; in turn, meant they were invested in him and they could move him up the company chain later. 

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” quoted Tech. Sgt. Strother.

He didn’t let go of the dream of joining the military and, through a friend at work, Strother spoke with a North Carolina Air National Guard member that suggested he talk to recruiting. 

“I took the ASVAB, I want to be like the guy with the cool shades, throwing out candy, I want to help people and serve,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “I said before that If I got a chance, I want to serve in the U.S. Military. America is the greatest nation on Earth because they’re willing to help the poor and give to other countries.”

Tech. Sgt. Strother joined the North Carolina Air National Guard Feb. 7, 2008 and was offered the position of crew Chief-aircraft mechanic. He was shocked, having only flown once. He was convinced to take the position so he could at least get his foot in the door. Soon after, they offered an AGE (Aerospace ground Equipment) job. The Toyota dealership didn’t want to let him go but he finally conceded to working full-time at the North Carolina Air National Guard after 11 years with Toyota. Finally, he decided to try his hand at recruiting; relying on his background to help him prove to recruits that anything is possible. 

“At the end of the day, we put people in to retain people,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother. “Remember good things, also bad things and take the good things from the bad things. The good always outweighs the bad.”

This job allows him to show people that no matter their differences, focus on what you’re doing and put your heart into it. To challenge himself, Tech. Sgt. Strother went to school, got his bachelors, and completed his Community College of the Air Force certificate. He’s currently enrolled in a Master’s program. 

“I would never be where I am today without all the opportunities in America,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother.

Since moving to America, Tech. Sgt. Strother has brought over his father, mother, siblings, other family and friends, including his uncle Solomon that helped him with his application and payment for the diversity lottery. Solomon finished up his own U.S. Citizenship January 16th, 2019. Strother supports the system at the U.S. Immigration office and sympathizes with those that dream of bettering themselves and their families by migrating to the United States of America.

There’s a noticeable dish of candy on his desk as a reminder of his story; a bittersweet reminder that represents the hope he carried from a country 4,839 miles away. 

“I want to tell this story to remind people of hope,” said Tech. Sgt. Strother, “there is always opportunity.”