Tragedy and perseverance

By Staff Sgt. Alexandria Mosness
81st Training Wing Public Affairs

He could have lived another life. One that included becoming a child soldier and subsequently a Lost Boy from the Liberian Civil War. Instead, luck, hard work and true grit led Joseph Boyou to the U.S. Air Force where he now holds the rank of staff sergeant.

Boyou, 2nd Air Force special projects and programs manager, was born in Monrovia, Liberia, in West Africa. He recently signed a deal to publish his first memoirs to detail the ups and downs of his life.

Boyou grew up in the capital of Liberia until civil war broke out in the late ’80s. Boyou’s father managed to escape prior to the collapse of his country and moved to the U.S. to earn money so his family could join him. The rest of Boyou’s family fled to Guinea in 1989 to escape the civil war. Boyou and his family lived in refugee camps in Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana until his father arranged for them to come to the U.S.

During his time in the refugee camps, the living conditions were anything but easy. Hunger pains gripped his belly all the time, and the family learned to live on meager rations among hundreds of thousands of people in the camps, he said.

“There wasn’t much to like about it,” he said matter-of-factly.

Though Boyou did not have much, he had his family and their traditions. Boyou was quick to mention that many others lost their families to sickness, hunger or the tragedy of war, so he was grateful to have his intact.

For those who stayed, “most got killed or lost everything,” Boyou said. “They lost their sense of community and home.”

Through his father’s hard work, Boyou and his siblings immigrated to the U.S. in 1996.

“I remember touching down in Philadelphia and realizing it was a whole new world,” he said. “I went from a world of survival mode to a world of abundance of everything. It was just a different grasp to see this new world. It was surreal to see the buildings and huge skyscrapers.”

“In Liberia there are two seasons: rainy and dry seasons. I had no idea how cold it was going to be,” he explained.

The weather wasn’t the only thing that surprised Boyou, but the culture as well.

“I was stunned you could get food from a drive-through window,” he exclaimed. “It was a bit of shock. It was a whole different environment. I went to a brand new school that had air conditioning. In Liberia, we are taught to be obedient. In America, I was amazed to see students talking back to an instructor.”

Boyou thought America would be flashy and resemble what he had seen on television shows, but the TV didn’t show that there would still be hard times in the U.S.

“There was a struggle in America, but it was different than the struggle in Africa,” he continued. “In Africa you don’t have it, and you don’t know you don’t have it. In America, you don’t have it, and you know you don’t have it.”

Even if Boyou didn’t have everything he wanted, it didn’t stop him from pursuing his education, he said. He went to Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After receiving his degree, he joined the Air Force in 2006.

“I joined to support my family and to travel,” he said. Boyou met his wife after he joined the Air Force, and in late 2012, she was pregnant with their first child. It was a very happy time for the couple, but nothing could prepare Boyou for the loss of his wife during childbirth on Sept. 18, 2013. During this tragedy, Boyou said he simultaneously felt the joy of having a newborn.

“The moment I held him, I became a whole new person,” he said emotionally. “It has been devastating starting all over without my wife. I am still dealing with it, but I have had great support.”

Even through all of the pain, the most important thing Boyou wants his son to know is that he was adored by his mother.

“The main thing I want him to know is that she loved him very much,” Boyou said quietly. “She did all of the planning; she did all of the work. She picked out everything down to the stroller. She did most of the hard work.”

Boyou’s son is also greatly loved by his father and it can be seen by his coworkers.

“My first impression was that this was an outstanding young man making the best way for his son,” said Walter Hack, Boyou’s supervisor. “In the six months I’ve known him, this feeling has only intensified. He cares very much for his family, both his immediate family and extended through his marriage.”

As a form of therapy, Boyou turned to writing to express his thoughts.

“When I couldn’t talk about it, I would write about it,” he continued. “My son doesn’t know the story, so I was really inspired and driven to write my story.”

With all of his thoughts down on paper, Boyou realized it sounded more like a book than random memories from his life and childhood.

So, he pitched his book to a publishing company, which loved his story, he said. Although people told him it was extremely hard to get a book published, the story resonated with the publishing company. He officially signed a book deal May 29, and the book is scheduled to be released later this summer.

“My goal is to have it published by my son’s first birthday,” he said. “That was the main reason I worked so hard on getting it published, and it looks like it is going to happen.”

Hard work was nothing new to Boyou; it was something his father had ingrained in him from a young age.

“My father set goals and was very strict,” Boyou said. “If I asked for a new pair of shoes, I’d get a book.”

This mentality has carried Boyou throughout his adolescence, adulthood and into his life as a parent.

“My dad is the strongest man I’ve ever known,” he said passionately. “He instilled great values within all of us. Looking back as a parent, I can see all that he did for my family. He found a way to make a way for us.”

Through the choices of his father, Boyou was given the greatest gift of being able to handpick his destiny–the same gift he plans to give his son.