Master Sgt. Pamela Harris-Braxton’s first military encounter sparked a 40-year Army Reserve career. She remembers it like it was yesterday.
Harris-Braxton was an 18-year-old college freshman walking with her friends, Sandra and Stephanie, on the grounds of Livingston College at Rutgers University.
“We used to see people on campus in uniform and we found out they were part of the Army Reserve right across the field from the college campus,” said Harris-Braxton. “That’s when I started thinking about joining. We saw the Army as an opportunity.”
As always, things were changing in the Army. In 1978, the Women’s Army Corps was dissolved. By 1980, most restrictions on women’s occupations (except for combat roles) had been lifted.
By April 1982, Harris-Braxton enlisted.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘I swear,’” she said.
Harris-Braxton, a Plainfield native, grew up as part of a family that had a grand total of 14 children. At age 16, her mom died, followed two years later by her dad.
“A whole lot had happened back then. College was difficult enough, but when you’re dealing with issues like that, it’s hard,” she said.
These events were part of why she joined the Army Reserve.
RELATED: Meet the Army Reserve career counselor helping soldiers in military, civilian life
“It helped push me toward it, something to do,” Harris-Braxton said. “They [her mom and dad] never got to see it.”
It may be a challenge to find another soldier who has dedicated as many years of service to the Army Reserve’s 78th Training Division as Harris-Braxton.
“I came into the 78th Training Division working in HHC, and I will be leaving working in the 78th Training Division HHC,” she said.
“The military has gone through changes and you have to evolve with them,” said Harris-Braxton. “We had those black typewriters that weighed 50 pounds, and at times we set up field offices and they were portable. You put them in a box and wheeled them out to the field.”
She explained the military instills a mindset of ‘adjust as you go’ into many troops.
“They put the first computers on our desks and said, ‘You all need to learn how to use it.’ No instructions. We figured it out … be flexible,” she said.
“I go back to what they called the Xerox machine, or even further than that with the roller copier. So, the ’80s weren’t so far off. Yeah, you have to evolve, and I was able to perform different duties and details,” she said. “When I came into the military, I always told them I wanted to be a teacher and it just so happened that the 78th was an instructor’s unit. So, I got to do the teaching part and some years later I was a ‘go’ to be a field medic. I jumped on it.”
Yet, after decades of service and continuous change in the military, Harris-Braxton is retiring this year from her successful dual-status military career as an Army Reserve Soldier and as a civilian Army Reserve administrator with the 78th TD.
“I pretty much do everything. I’m the commander’s voice during the week; anything that needs to be done as far as personnel actions, pay inquiries or reconcile whatever is wrong; plus, I take on additional duties,” she said. “I’m also the SHARP representative, victim/advocate now.”
She also earned associate’s degrees in chemical technology and human resources.
“I love people. I’m a people person. I’m not shy at all, I feel as though people have a comfort with talking to me, coming to me if they have a question or a problem,” she said. “For some reason, they believe I know all, so anything I can do to help them is fine.”
As a result of Base Realignment and Closure, the division’s headquarters and its 1st Brigade were relocated here from Edison in 2009.
“I’m just ready for retirement. I want to continue to work. I like working with charities every now and then, but I just want to relax first,” said Harris-Braxton.
Of the Reserve components, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve had the largest number of total retirements (425,659), followed by the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve (210,952), the Navy Reserve (124,728), and the Marine Corps Reserve (17,977) according to Official Guard and Reserve Manpower Strengths and Statistics.
“People say, ‘How did you do it for so long?’ I like what I do. At 19, I would have never ever thought 40 years later I’d still be doing this. I think when I came into the 78th, I came into a family. I’ve always felt comfortable with people I’ve worked with,” Harris-Braxton added.
As of 2018, there are 779,316 total members retired from the Ready Reserve (including Selected Reserve, Individual Ready Reserve, and Inactive National Guard) according to Official Guard and Reserve Manpower Strengths and Statistics.
Harris-Braxton is working on Dec. 12, 2022, as her retirement date because it’s her and her identical twin sister’s birthday.
Her family is an inspiration to her. She is married, and her husband and two sons support her.
“They are so proud. I talk to people, and they say someone in the family was happy to tell them about my still being in the military. You always hear things like that over the years and they’re very helpful. They made it easier for me,” said Harris-Braxton.
At times, she gets great satisfaction from working with the soldiers in the 78th TD, especially when she sees the end results.
“I love what I do. Just the soldier coming back to say, ‘Thank you,’ is more than enough,” said Harris-Braxton. “Even if they didn’t get the results they were looking for, they say, ‘You tried – that’s what matters,’ that’s usually their response.”
“I always tell Soldiers to get the most out of it,” she continued. “The Army has so much to offer. You have to find what makes you happy with the Army. For me, it’s working with people. I worked on the medical side, the human resource side, even volunteering for color guard. Working with people all the time is what makes me happy.”
A confident smile appears on Harris-Braxton’s face when she describes working with the soldiers of the 78th TD over the decades and how she goes about her business.
“I make it me. It’s a part of me. You make sure that you look right, you do right, you feel right, and that’s the main thing. I volunteered to join the military; I chose to do it. I did my best. I took pride in it. I’m going to miss it,” she explained. “It was an inspiration to me just to see how far I could go. I like to see things complete.”
When she commits to a mission, large or small, she owns it. That’s the success story of Harris-Braxton as she worked toward the larger goal of Army Reserve readiness, despite all the changes over time, she departs while also leaving an indelible mark of service and teamwork on her unit and her fellow Soldiers.