RICHMOND, Va. -- The first time US Army Reserve Sgt. Bryan Herrera encountered the military, he was just a child living by himself in the woods outside Guatemala City. He was two years old when his mother left for the United States. His father was sent to retrieve the young Herrera and bring him to the US, but refused unless he was given drug money.
A determined Herrera then fled to the streets at age six.
“I didn’t have structure at all, no upbringing. I just, you know… lived out there.”
Things changed when he met a Guatemalan soldier, and it was this encounter which made him want to join the military.
“I ran into the military when I was living out in the woods,” explained Herrera. “One of the Soldiers, he didn’t know what to do when he found a kid in the woods by himself, so he guided me.”
The soldier taught Herrera skills to survive in the wilderness, including fishing and hunting.
“He guided me until he left, and ever since that, I wanted to be in the military.”
Herrera would grow up to serve in the US Army Reserve and become a business owner, despite the nearly insurmountable odds of his childhood.
“It was startling, but it was amazing at the same time, to know that he lived through it,” said Staff Sgt. Christy Parker, a public affairs non-commissioned officer and comrade of Herrera’s. “He still has such a good attitude about the world.”
The two friends currently serve at the 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, located in Richmond, Virginia.
Herrera lived on his own in Guatemala from the ages of six to 10, but has called Richmond, Virginia his home since 1998, when he moved to the U.S. There he lived with his mother, Lilian Bedoya, who opened the first Latino owned barbershop in the Richmond area in 2000.
Herrera spent the rest of his childhood either assisting in the family shop or running away from home due to frequent conflicts with his stepfather. After graduating from Chesterfield Community High, the young man enlisted in the National Guard as a wheeled vehicle mechanic without saying a word to his parents.
Herrera said he was the first of four siblings to join the military. His younger brother, Alex, would later follow in his footsteps and serve six years.
In 2011 Herrera would transition to the Army Reserve. Desperate to be out from beneath his mother’s shadow, Herrera then moved far away from Virginia in 2015.
“I ended up leaving because any time something at the business would fail, it was always me responsible for fixing things,” Herrera said. “I ended up leaving to Hawaii, I left everything.”
In Oahu, Hawaii, Herrera served with the 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade while also working as a real estate photographer.
Meanwhile back home, Bedoya’s business fell on hard times financially, and she reached out to him for help. Herrera, despite wanting to make a name for himself alone, answered the call of his mother.
“I had to stop everything and come back.”
Since 2016, Herrera has assumed full control of the family business, which now operates three different barbershops. When he is not cutting hair, Herrera is busy managing employees and finances.
“The structure the military gave me, I applied to my business,” said Herrera.
Rather than fleeing his problems, the Army Reserve showed Herrera he must face them.
“As a business owner, there’s nobody to tell you what to do, so you have to get up everyday and do it yourself,” Herrera said. “The military has taught me consistency. Even though I don’t want to get up, I know I have to come to drill because it’s my responsibility and I took it upon myself to do it.”
Despite his tumultuous childhood, Herrera maintains a calm demeanor both in uniform and out.
“I have never seen him rattled by anything,” remarked Parker. "Sometimes when people have pretty rough upbringings, their outlook on things are more skewed – he took what happened and it made him the person and NCO he is today.”
When asked about why his attitude towards working the family haircutting business changed, his answer was simple:
“I like to help people, that’s why I get up every day,” said Herrera. “If anybody ever asks me for help, I help them.”
“I learned that from my mother.”