MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan.— “I had an average life. There was nothing dramatic about it — or so I thought.”
Master Sgt. Ieaka Olmstead, 22nd Operations Support Squadron host aviation resource management superintendent, grew up in Georgia with a mother battling a mental illness. When Olmstead was a young teen, her mother was arrested. After three weeks of living on her own, the gig was up.
“I remember my principal coming to get me, and she asked when the last time I saw my mom was,” said Olmstead. “I said, ‘Last night,’ and she goes ‘Well, your mom has been in jail for three weeks.’ At that age, I had already been through so much that I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to stay at my house by myself. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew they were going to take me somewhere.”
Olmstead was given just a few minutes to gather her belongings before she was carted off.
“I was what’s called a trash-bag kid,” she said. “When children are put into a homeless shelter or foster care, they’re given a few minutes to grab everything they own in the world and put it in a trash bag. So I went back to our trailer, and I grabbed everything I could: some clothes and my Cabbage Patch doll that I still have today.”
Olmstead described that night at her first foster home as the beginning of her resiliency. Instead of focusing on her own issues, she dedicated herself to comforting someone else. When she saw another girl crying and found out she had been molested by her father, Olmstead wanted nothing more than to help her.
“We sat up all night,” said Olmstead. “I let her hold Misty Patrice, [my Cabbage Patch doll], and I told her it would be alright, that we weren’t going to let her dad do anything to her. I just remember talking to her all night, and none of my problems mattered. She mattered.”
Olmstead then spent six selfless months in a bad foster home before being reunited with her mother. Even though she knew it would be easy to be transferred to a different home, she chose to stay.
“The little girl who was there with me was being abused, so I had to protect her,” Olmstead said. “I was okay. My situation was relative. Everything that happens to me happens for a reason, and I was sent to that foster home to protect that child. I knew my mom was going to get me back, and I also knew this little girl didn’t have anybody.”
AIR FORCE CAREER
The remainder of Olmstead’s teen years were rocky, and the promise of stability was one of the things that drew her to the Air Force.
“When I enlisted in the Air Force, I was virtually homeless,” Olmstead explained. “We had an apartment at the time, but my future was unsecure. I knew that my mom taking care of me with her own issues would be continually difficult, and my recruiter told me that I would never have to worry about my security again. I would have food, a place to live and be able to care for my mother, and that was a big thing.”
Even as a young Airman, Olmstead continued to be selfless.
“Fast forward to when I was an airman basic, determined to support my mom and make her proud,” Olmstead said. “I didn’t spend a Christmas at home for my first 11 years in the Air Force. I was always gone. I always volunteered to take deployments and temporary duty assignments over the holidays because I needed the money to support my mom.”
A few years into her career, Olmstead faced her hardest obstacle so far. After getting married, she lost a baby at 28 weeks, which landed her in a mental hospital trying to recover from her loss. Her husband then dumped more bad news on her: He wanted a divorce.
“God took Sergeant Hackett’s baby from her, so she took a bottle of pills because she wanted to sleep until her baby came back,” Olmstead said, referring to a past version of herself. “Through therapy and my friends and family, I got through what I thought at the time was the hardest thing ever: spreading my child’s ashes, going through a divorce and coming back from a suicide attempt.”
After recovering, Olmstead switched her degree to psychology and worked to find herself again. She volunteered for a deployment to Kyrgyzstan, and while she was there, she sustained a hip injury that would later impact her career.
Even though she was injured, Olmstead soon deployed again. With her earnings from her deployments, she was then able to buy her mother a home, putting an end to the years of off-and-on homelessness.
Olmstead eventually received orders to Germany, where she was re-married and became pregnant again. Throughout her pregnancy, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, so she took matters into her own hands.
“[My husband] had an appointment for his hip at Landstuhl, so I wobbled down the hall to the women’s health section and asked to see somebody even though I didn’t have a referral. They told me somebody had just cancelled with the high-risk doctor, and I said, ‘Look at God.’ I walked in, and I remember looking at her wall, and I swear she had degrees from every prestigious college. I was just blown away, and I thought, ‘This lady is going to help me.’”
After several tests were ran, the doctor told her that something was indeed wrong. After Olmstead revealed information about her first pregnancy, the doctor told her something that made her see the loss of her first child through new eyes.
“She said, ‘I know this isn’t going to help you with losing her, but what you just told me just saved your baby’s life,’” Olmstead explained. “I know now that I had to lose Arianna to have Gavin. She saved his life. Everything happens for a reason.”
LATE AIR FORCE CAREER
After moving to McConnell, Olmstead became a master resiliency instructor on base, using her life experiences to teach other Airmen how to be resilient. Olmstead has excelled as a senior noncommissioned officer, even leading her flight to an Air Force-level award.
“Sergeant Olmstead immediately lights up every room she walks into,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Walenga, 22nd OSS commander. “If you aren't passionate about the Air Force and life in general before meeting her, you will be afterwards. She is a caring leader who puts her money where her mouth is and isn't afraid to roll up her sleeves and get the job done.”
Last year, Olmstead hit a huge roadblock in her career. Her injury from her Afghanistan deployment came back to haunt her in the form of a medical evaluation board. She received her results just a couple months before her 19-year eligibility to select retirement: She was to be separated with nothing but a severance payment.
“You would think that all the other stuff I’ve been through in my life probably crushed me, but I think that was the hardest thing in my whole life,” Olmstead said. “I’ve been in the military for longer than I have not, and when they told me that it was over, I had to believe that I was going through this for a reason.”
Everyone told her that she would never be returned to duty, but Olmstead didn’t want to listen to what other people said. She decided to fight. With her commander and husband by her side, she appealed to the formal board and walked away victorious.
“I've had no greater honor during my time in command than the opportunity to fight for a fellow Airman's career,” Walenga said. “It was a powerful experience to be standing shoulder to shoulder, in tears at times, passionately pleading for the right thing to be done for a person who has selflessly dedicated her life to serving her country.”
Olmstead is now able to look back at her life and see how far she’s come, and she goes out of her way to make sure other children like her know how far they can go too.
“I have a passion for helping children who are homeless,” she said. “And they’re not bad children or poor students, these are normal kids of all ages. They don’t ask to be in these situations, and they just need someone to listen to them. I can tell them that I was a trash bag kid too, that this part sucks, but it’s not their final chapter.”
Even through all of her trials in life, Olmstead’s positivity still shines through.
“I needed to go through all these things so I can help others,” she said. “It’s not about me being resilient; it’s about me helping somebody else be resilient. I’ve been at my weakest before, but I’m brave enough to talk about it because there’s somebody out there going through it who’s not.”