RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --
“I actually carried a knife to school in my backpack. I called it my ‘deterrence weapon.’”
For many American school age children, remembering to pack a knife alongside your homework isn’t a thought; however, for Chaplain (Col.) Donnette Boyd, wing chaplain of the 86th Airlift Wing, it was part of a routine.
Growing up in a tough Cleveland neighborhood, Boyd lived in fear for years of being a victim to the daily beatings given by her classmates.
“I grew up fighting a lot; fighting my way to school, fighting my way home,” Boyd said. “I didn’t think I’d actually use the knife, but people would know I had it there to defend myself. I managed to attend that school for three years and not be attacked.
“I had a very pessimistic view of humanity because of my upbringing,” she continued. “I didn’t have the love for people that I do now. I saw people as pain.”
At age 6, Boyd, her mother and older brother moved to Cleveland from Jamaica. Because of the culture shift, she said their family had a different perspective than her American neighborhood.
“[In Jamaica,] I went to school with kids who didn’t have shoes on their feet because they didn’t own a pair of shoes,” Boyd said. “They literally were barefoot. [My family] saw it as, regardless of how tough it is, you still get 12 years of free education. It’s all how you look at it. I saw it as the glass was half-full, while the people around me saw it as the glass was half-empty.”
During her time in Cleveland, Boyd said the faucet was dripping to fill her glass every day.
“I lived in the hood, but I never let the hood get inside me,” she said. “I’d always had an ambition to be studious, grow up and get out of that neighborhood. I got picked on because I was different; I guess I stood out being the bookworm. I didn’t like the violence, the drugs, and I didn’t like the constant dehumanization of people. When I was in middle school, there was a gang that would clobber people- ten of them at a time - like the fighting you’d see on YouTube. That was an everyday occurrence at my school. That’s really when I learned the power of prayer.”
Without any direct spiritual guidance, it was around age 12 Boyd said she started praying.
“I would pray every day that I would never have to use the knife,” Boyd said. “A combination of the grace of God and a strong willpower is what it took for me to get through that neighborhood. It’s all a battle of the mind. It takes your mental state, spiritual stamina, your ability to associate with the right people, even the physical toughness of being disciplined to survive the hood. Staying focused on your goal, believing in yourself and believing that there’s hope. If I didn’t envision a better future from those early years, I wouldn’t be here.”
While everyday was a mental, physical and emotional battle, Boyd pressed on, making it home to complete her homework and chores, instilled in her by her “tough” mother.
“Having survived my mother’s parenting has made me a better person,” the mother of two said. “[My mom] was tougher on me and my brother than I am on my own kids. There’s some things she did I would never do. But there’s some things she did as a mom, I think made her an even better mom than me.”
Boyd’s perseverance and ambitious attitude led her to Kent State University in 1983, where she joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and commissioned as a line officer in 1987.
Though she had left the neighborhood behind, it wasn’t until several duty assignments later, at the age of 28, Boyd said she finally felt the pain start to diminish.
It happened while she was reading the Bible during her first year of being a Christian; Boyd said the change in her was all spiritual.
“When God took the pain away from me, I could react to people not from my pain, but out of the freedom from that pain,” Boyd said. “I could look at other people and tell when they’re in pain. A lot of us are walking around hurting, and we don’t know how to address it. I realized that a person doesn’t have to be good to be loved, that people were hurting just like I was. And I can love them in spite of the fact that they’re hurting and not judge them based on their actions.”
Equipped with her spiritual transformation and love for mentoring, Boyd taught Bible study and assisted in sermons at a Ramstein Air Base church.
It was then, Boyd’s husband brought up the initial idea of her becoming a chaplain. She agreed, and in 1996, she separated from the military to attend seminary.
In 2000, Boyd graduated seminary and was among the 15 percent selected to commission as an U.S. Air Force chaplain.
Boyd said her violent experiences caused her a lot of pain and has shaped the way she empathizes, mentors and connects with service members as a spiritual leader.
Some of her favorite parts of her job are unit visitation and counseling. She stated approximately 80 percent of a problem is having someone to talk to about it.
“The vast majority of people that come in for counseling are for non-spiritual matters,” Boyd stated. “It’s for stress, anxiety, marriage problems and work-related issues. [There are] various things going on in [service members’] lives, but they don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else about it.”
Regardless of an individual’s faith, Boyd said she truly enjoys helping people make a connection and reach a level of peace from within.
“I really believe in our first amendment right,” Boyd said. “No one has the right to tell us what to believe or how to worship. I love the idea of accommodating people regardless of their faith background.”
It was through her fight, pain, resilience, focus, love, and motivation to serve God that Boyd earned the rank of colonel, becoming the first African-American female, active-duty chaplain in the U.S. Air Force to do so.
“It’s unreal and humbling,” Boyd said. “One of the things I benefited from so much in the Air Force is it’s what you bring to the fight, not what you bring it in. People will give you your props if you work hard and earn it.”