WASHINGTON -- Moments after pinning on her new rank during a virtual commissioning ceremony in early June, 2nd Lt. Christina Meredith smiled brightly as she pumped her arms with excitement.
As a new signals intelligence officer with the Texas National Guard, Meredith fought hard to become a military officer -- a priority she set nearly 20 years ago after attending a Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps summer program at the age of 14.
Overcome by emotion, Meredith tightly clasped the rank insignia on her uniform as she closed her eyes in prayer. A wave of emotion poured over her as she wept tears of joy.
It took a long time to get to this moment, Meredith said. Through all the years of abuse and trauma, through all the times her mother told her that she was worthless, Meredith finally fulfilled her dream.
"I'm not a victim," she said. "Sure, I endured hardships … but it was up to me to decide how I was going to live my life. I choose my destiny."
Becoming an Army officer wasn’t her only achievement. She is also a former Ms. California pageant winner, published author of a bestselling memoir, national speaker, and aspiring politician. She has even created a non-profit organization, the Christina Meredith Foundation, to advocate for foster care reform.
Both in and out of uniform, Meredith remains committed to her cause: "fight for the oppressed, love people with a feverish zeal, and serve others sacrificially," she said. Equally, Meredith feels that her journey validates the "tenacity behind the American spirit."
"I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a quitter," she emphasized. "You got to keep fighting to reach your goal."
A painful past
For years, Meredith and her siblings were subjected to constant psychological and physical trauma by their mother.
"My mother would never call me by my name," Meredith recalled. "She used to call me 'demon, stupid, [and laundry lady].' I was just an object to her."
She quickly learned how to conceal her many injuries from her parents’ abuse when she went to school, she said. At the same time, her mother and stepfather found ways to circumvent child protection services and other law enforcement officials.
It was a long time before CPS intervened.
Beyond the pain she felt at the hand of her mother, Meredith was also robbed of her childhood innocence after she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her uncle at a young age, she said in her book, “CinderGirl.” At one point, she reached out to her mother for support only to be shunned by her family.
Her family never believed her, she said.
Meredith was later tossed aside and put into the foster care system. Years of trauma and abuse left invisible scars, as she struggled to understand the feelings of love and compassion in her new home, she said.
When she turned 18, Meredith ran from her foster family and started "couch surfing" at her friends' houses until she graduated high school. At the same time, she worked multiple jobs and saved up enough money to purchase her first car -- a bright, yellow Chevrolet she called "Sunny."
That car would later become her home. When she wasn't working long hours, Meredith bounced between secluded parking areas where she would sleep, change her clothes, and sometimes bathe.
All the while, she found solace in her faith as she read the Bible and continued to write down her goals and dreams. Many of which came true later in her life.
Despite all the chaos growing up, Meredith remains thankful for her time in JROTC -- an opportunity that saved her life, she said.
"I knew at a very young age that if I didn't graduate high school, or find something to excel in, I would end up just like my mother," Meredith said. "Once I found out that I was good at something, I threw my entire being into it."
Dedicating herself to the Allen D. Nease High School Navy JROTC program, Meredith quickly found purpose, structure, camaraderie, and protection.
She was determined to become a military officer one day, as she applied to all the military academies and several ROTC programs. However, no one would accept a C-average student that needed to retake classes to graduate.
Years of psychological abuse had impacted Meredith's ability to learn, she said.
"The bad influences during school could have easily swallowed me up, but JROTC gave me so many friendships and kept me busy," she added. "I had to be different to save myself from a crippling cycle of poverty and abuse."
Close to 60% of foster youth will drop out of school, with less than 3% earning a four-year college degree by age 21, according to her non-profit website. Additionally, more than half of foster children will become homeless.
"I got rejected, but I remained undeterred," she said. "I felt that the military offered so much purpose because it chisels out a grit” that one can't get anywhere else.
"My path just took a little bit longer than most," she added, laughing.
Driven to serve
With all things considered, Meredith's life was moving in a positive direction when she decided to enlist in the Army as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist in 2015, she said.
She was eventually assigned to the 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion in Jacksonville, Florida, before entering the Army’s Simultaneous Membership Program in 2016.
Through SMP, she maintained her role as a National Guard Soldier. At the same time, she attended college at the University of North Florida while serving as a cadet with the "Fightin' Gator" ROTC Battalion out of the University of Florida, said Lt. Col. Frank Cortez, a professor of military science who supports both colleges.
"Leaders take care of their Soldiers," Cortez said. "I think with her background and everything that she's been through, she leans heavily on that aspect of leadership. She believes in putting people first, which is what leaders should do.
"You want leaders who have been through adversity ... so they can go forth and lead people better," he added.
For example, during various training events, Meredith would walk around and check in with her fellow cadets to ensure they all had the proper equipment, or enough food and water. She would continuously put others before herself, Cortez said.
Despite her success outside the military, Meredith remained humble and determined, Cortez added. She was continually looking for ways to improve as a leader, and would often jump on training or mentorship opportunities.
"The military chisels out a sense of true leadership and toughness that many people can't understand," Meredith said.
"I want to continue to learn and grow," she added. "I want to be worthy of the Soldier mantle by leading men and women through combat … knowing that we have the training and capacity to return home safely -- in victory."