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Braving the fire: Airman overcomes difficult childhood, finds joy

A photo of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, sitting on a fire truck at Vogelweh Military Complex, Germany, March 12, 2020.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, poses for a photo at Vogelweh Military Complex, Germany, March 12, 2020. Jerido is a Southhampton, New York native whose difficult childhood led her toward a career in firefighting to better help people. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nesha Humes Stanton)

A photo of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, and her mother, Angei Jerido, hugging and smiling for a photo at Cooper Beach, New York, Dec. 13, 2011.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, and her mother, Angei Jerido, smile for a photo at Cooper Beach, New York, Dec. 13, 2011. At a very young age, Jerido learned how to fight for what is important, after seeing her mother overcome a disability. Since then, Jerido credits her mother’s strength and her faith in God to have brought her through the toughest of times. (Courtesy photo)

A large group photo with U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, far right, posing with her classmates after graduating from the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, July 15, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, far right, poses with her classmates after graduating from the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 15, 2018. Jerido harnessed her willpower, a lesson she learned at a very young age, during her 68 days of firefighter training. (Courtesy photo)

A photo of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, showcases her tattoo on the right side of her stomach stating “No longer ashamed, no longer afraid, I was never to blame,” at Southhampton, New York, Sept. 6, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, showcases her tattoo stating “No longer ashamed, no longer afraid, I was never to blame,” at Southhampton, New York, Sept. 6, 2018. Jerido, a sexual abuse survivor, thanks God and her mother for teaching her the strength of willpower to see her through difficult times in life. (Courtesy photo)

A close-up photo of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, leans her arm over to show off her below-the-zone promotion stripes at Vogelweh Military Complex, Germany, March 30, 2020.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection apprentice, shows off her below-the-zone promotion stripes at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, March 30, 2020. BTZ is a program where a select few recipients are selected to promote to senior airman six months ahead of their peers. (Courtesy photo)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --

Everyone reacts differently when faced with danger. Some will freeze. Some will faint. Some will flee. But there are those few who will fight.

At a very young age, Airman 1st Class Kayla Jerido discovered she was one of these few.

Jerido is a fire protection apprentice assigned to the 86th Civil Engineer Squadron. Throughout her life, Jerido’s been described as the positive type, exhibiting a great energy for life. She has a contagious smile and a willpower fueled by optimism, which pours into her hard work on a daily basis.

“Jerido is amazing because you know that no matter what is going on during the day or night, she handles any and all tasks with the same level-headed logic and energy,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matt Lester, 86th CES fire protection crew chief. “Her contributions to the unit have won her multiple awards. I am more than excited to see how far she goes in the Air Force and beyond with her work ethic and determination.”

However, those who have heard the energetic 27-year-old’s journey are often taken by surprise.

Growing up in Southampton, New York, Jerido faced a series of life changing events. She was only 5 years old when she found her mom unresponsive by peering underneath a locked bathroom door. Her fight response kicked in as she sprinted to wake her father who then kicked down the door and called for help.

“My mom had a stroke and aneurysm, and I ended up saving her life,” Jerido said. “This is really the reason I wanted to help people.”

In the following years, Jerido and her grandparents were her mother’s caretakers since she lost all mobility on the right side of her body. Jerido also learned how her mother’s aneurysm is hereditary.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed, a fact Jerido witnessed first hand.

“In a split second, it all changed,” she said.

One moment her mother was beginning her career as a paramedic, and the next she couldn’t form words. Little did they know, at the time of the stroke, Jerido had a sibling on the way.

“My mother was pregnant with my little brother,” she said. “He was born three months premature.”

By 6 years old, Jerido fully understood her roles around the house: feed her brother, change his diapers; prepare meals; and care for her mother by tying her shoes and doing her hair.

“I never really had that mother figure since she couldn’t do a lot of what moms are supposed to do because of this serious thing that happened to her,” Jerido said.

As her mother regained strength throughout the next 10 years by re-learning to walk, talk and reclaim her mobility, Jerido learned the power in fighting for something important.

“My mom is an amazing person,” Jerido said with a grin. “She has fought to live. Whenever I think of giving up, I think of how she never gave up. My mom is very strong and I aspire every day to be just like her. She has pushed me to be the person I am today.”

In addition to coping with the physical, mental and emotional toll of her mother’s disability, violence and drugs had surrounded her home.

“I had a lot of people in my family that were into criminal activities,” Jerido said. “I didn’t want to be like some of my family members who chose drugs to cope with their problems.”

What’s more, she carried an extreme burden she had been battling and concealing for years.

“I was sexually abused from the time I was 5 until 19,” Jerido said. “My parents found out about it later on, when I was about 22. They had no idea.”

With her pain revealed for everyone to see, Jerido searched for an opportunity to heal.

“I did not want to be in New York anymore,” Jerido said. “I had been through so much.”

Her father, who had moved to Florida years prior, encouraged Jerido to leave New York and move in with him.

“I needed to be brave, I needed to be strong and I needed to keep fighting because that's the person I want to be in the long run,” she said. “I didn’t want to be someone that fails, I want to keep striving to be the best I can be.”

Supported with her mother’s example of strength, she packed her things and moved to Tampa, Florida, in 2016, leaving behind a life she knew was no longer hers and joined her father.

During this time, Jerido continued to pray for strength daily as she put all her faith in God.

“I thank God every day for giving me the strength to keep going,” she said. “I had a rough childhood, but I don’t want to let it define me as a person. It is powerful to me to have conquered everything that I have without [turning] to drugs or alcohol or even worse, committing suicide. I know so many people (who) have been through trials and tribulations that I have and it resulted in suicide.”

Jerido rebuilt her life as she worked two jobs, before setting her sights on the Air Force. Originally, firefighting wasn’t in the plan. Growing up, she had always wanted to become a police officer.

“When I was younger all I wanted was someone to come to my house and protect me, or be there for me, or someone to talk to,” Jerido said. “I wanted to be that person to help me in the same situation that I was in.”

Although her plans changed, Jerido found a sense of pride in her work as a firefighter.

“When I arrive at people’s houses, I’m arriving on one of their worst days; it makes me feel better knowing I can help,” she explained.

In the summer of 2018, Jerido’s journey to become a firefighter began. After graduating from basic military training, she went to formal training at Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

The training was arduous, often testing Airmen’s strength and willpower.

“A lot of people go into training thinking it was going to be easy,” she said. “When you go in with that mentality you find out really quickly who you are.”

The first physical obstacle of fire protection training: crawling through a confined space with gear on.

“I can’t lie, in the beginning I was like, ‘This is crazy, this thing is tight’ ... it was a little scary but the second time, it was a breeze. I got used to it.”

During formal training, fire protection specialists study numerous skills such as emergency management, first aid techniques, fire scene evidence preservation, public relations fire prevention awareness, and fire and disaster environmental protection.

“There aren’t a lot of us (women) in tech school, so when I had another female in my class, I wanted to motivate and help her get to the next level; she did the same for me,” she said.

Often, some women felt discouraged because the physical tasks did not come as easy to them as their male classmates. However, Jerido and the other women pressed on, encouraging each other anyway. One of the challenging tasks included picking up a 150-pound dummy while wearing 70 pounds of equipment for the first time.

“‘This thing is heavy!’” she recalled. “But it’s that willpower to know I can do this just like any other man can. That’s my mentality. I’m going to do this – and I'm going to do it well – because I want this job.”

Jerido persevered through 68 days of training and graduated in January 2019. She went on to her first unit, the 86th CES, where she is currently one of five female firefighters in her 206-member unit.

However, Jerido doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by her gender when called a ‘female firefighter’ but highlighted for her excellence.

“I love the fact that I’m empowering women,” she explained. “There’re probably little girls that want to become firefighters. But, people have to understand that just because we’re female, doesn’t mean that we’re less than . We’re all firefighters and we all want to do this job because we love helping people. We love learning and we want to grow.”

For Jerido, her perseverance has paid off in the form of joy.

“We went on a call and some kid randomly yelled, ‘We love you guys!’ and I was like, ‘I love you, too!’” she said. “He was just so happy that I spoke to him. The kids are so adorable when they see us. They don’t even know me from a can of paint, but they love me and I love them!”

Overall, Jerido’s joy for firefighting and her unit has allowed her to enter the happiest time of her life.

“I love how much of a family we are,” she said. “We don’t always get along, just like a family, but the one thing I know is I can lean on these people like no other. I love my job so much and I love the people I work with.”

Jerido’s internal drive to fight carried her through the toughest of times. Yet, just like her firefighter training, it shaped her into the person she is today.

“I have nothing but God to thank for it,” she said. “God has gotten me to where I am today and I finally know what my purpose is in this world. I’m going to continue to find out what He has in store for me!

“When people look at me, they don’t see someone that was sexually abused or that went through a hard childhood,” she said. “They only see A1C Jerido, always smiling.”