Veteran finds confidence, motivation through military service
It was a long road for veteran Kevin Barnett to build his self-confidence — even longer to chronicle that journey in a book — but he credits the United States military for giving him the opportunity to find himself and to turn the negativity in his life into something productive.
In his book, “Living My Shadows: Dreams Do Come True,” Barnett shares his experiences in the foster care system, living in a troubled neighborhood, joining the military and searching for his birth family.
Barnett said he liked books’ ability to transform ideas into something tangible on the page and to pull readers into the author’s story.
“I just like the process: how you can put your thoughts down on paper, write a story,” he said.
Of course, Barnett didn’t think that story would necessarily be his own.
“I always knew I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t think it was going to be about my life,” he said.
After Barnett was born in 1960, his birth mother placed him for adoption. For the next 10 or 11 years, Barnett spent his childhood in the foster care system until he was adopted by his family, the Barnetts.
Barnett grew up in East Orange, N.J., where he said he encountered a lot of negativity. But he resisted those temptations and used martial arts to cope with the problems in his community.
“As I grew up, I started learning how to use negativity to build my house,” he said. “I call every negativity a brick, and you just lay brick by brick by brick until you build that house of success.”
Still, there was something missing from Barnett’s life: he wanted to see the world.
“I knew there had to be more than where I was living,” he said.
Barnett dreamed of visiting Europe where he could experience a different way of life.
“I’ve always been fascinated with going overseas,” he said.
There was just one small snag in the plan, however: neither he nor his parents could afford to send him to college.
Barnett worked for a while in what he called “a pretty good job” but eventually he just got “fed up with what was going on in the area where I grew up in.”
So at 28, Barnett enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Germany for his first duty station, where he spent nine years.
He said he loved living in the community instead of the barracks, speaking the German language, experiencing the family atmosphere and being able to travel to different countries.
“It was laid back. It wasn’t a lot of urban life, so to speak. It was different,” he said.
Being part of the military helped Barnett gain confidence in himself while also giving him a sense of pride by serving his country, he said.
During his time in the army, Barnett became a drill sergeant — an experience that he said particularly stands out to him as an impetus for strengthening his self-esteem.
“That right there helped me to become a leader, build my confidence up and be a person who affected over 5,000-plus soldiers,” he said.
Three years before Barnett retired from the military, he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year.
“I really wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “Nobody wants to go to war.”
A couple years after retiring, Barnett began searching for his birth family. He found his birth mother in September 2016 through Facebook groups and DNA testing. While he never met his birth father, Barnett was able to find out who the man was. Barnett said his birth mother, birth father’s family and his siblings had a family union in the Pocono Mountains.
Since beginning his search, Barnett has discovered family members across the world from the United Kingdom to Anguilla to Florida.
That search eventually inspired Barnett to write his book to share that journey with others who can relate to his struggle.
“Whenever I get to talk to individuals that have been in the same situation or are currently in the same situation, that’s really the driving point of me doing all this,” he said.
Barnett also founded his company, Living My Shadows LLC, where he serves as a motivational speaker. The company is based in Peoples Plaza.
He wants people, especially youth, to never let go of their dreams and know that they, too, can turn those “bricks of negativity” into the foundation for their hardearned success.
“No matter what people tell you that you can’t do, you can do it. But it’s going to take hard work … Anything is possible. You just have to put your mind to it,” he said.
Barnett also acknowledged the mental health struggles that some veterans and active-duty military personnel face.
“The main thing I suggest is if you have an issue or something, you’ve got to share it with someone. You’ve got to share it with another veteran,” he said.
Whether it’s visiting a Department of Veterans Affairs center, calling a hotline or sharing one’s experiences in veteran Facebook groups and in-person with veteran friends, Barnett said it is important for those people to find a way to speak their mind.
“I think that’s the hardest thing about being a veteran, especially individuals that are actually in combat; they’ve seen some horrible things,” he said. “You can never forget it and it’s something that stays with you. But you have to talk it out. Talk it out, seek help and don’t be ashamed of doing that.”
As young people work toward their dreams, Barnett said he wants youth to know they can do anything they want to do as long as they put the work in.
“No matter where you come from or how you got here or what difficulties you are facing, the bottom line is you have control of your life and you just have to make the right decisions,” he said. “If you make a mistake, you have to pick yourself up and don’t blame nobody and just tr y to get back on that road.”
Those interested can buy Barnett’s book on Amazon and visit his website at livingmyshadows.org.
Through military service and the search for his birth family, Kevin Barnett built the confidence he struggled to find earlier in his life. Now, as an author and motivational speaker, Barnett shares his journey with others to show them that dreams do come true if you put in the work.
Kevin Barnett enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 28 and was sent to Germany for his first duty station. He later became a drill sergeant and also was deployed to Afghanistan for one year.