FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky Army National Guard Maj. Mitisha Martin was still a small child who wore pigtails and dresses the first time she remembers seeing her mother’s boyfriend slam her mom across the kitchen table.
Her voice cracks as she reaches back into a dark place of experiences long since locked away, describing these memories as they flood her – flashes of violence filled with broken glass and screams. Martin, whose father was murdered when she was just 4 years old, remembers being overwhelmed by fear and helplessness, with no way to defend her mother and no one to turn to for help.
Today, that frightened child is gone. In her place stands a leader described by those who know her as “fierce” and an “inspiration.”
While she faced obstacles from a young age, Mitisha credits the Kentucky Guard for helping her reach her lifelong dream of becoming a dentist and co-owner of her own dentistry practice in Louisville.
Martin, who has served in the Kentucky Guard for 24 years, is in Poland on her second deployment. She is deployed with her unit, the 1163rd Area Support Medical Company, and is doing what she loves, working as a dentist.
“Growing up, I never would have dreamed in a million years that I would be a dentist,” she said. “I want others to know they can do it too. Whatever your dream is – no matter how big it is — you can do it. You just have to be willing to dig in and fight for it. To never give up.”
Martin concedes when it comes to chasing dreams, it is not always easy. She praises her mother for instilling in her the determination never to give up. As a child, Martin watched her mother work two jobs to make ends meet while raising her and her two siblings. And, when her mother couldn’t afford lights for their Christmas tree, she strung up popcorn.
“Mom always found a way to give us everything we needed,” said Martin. “She was very strong from all the adversities she had to go through. She’s one of my heroes.”
As a child growing up in Bowling Green, Martin describes herself as a mix between a girlie girl and a tomboy.
“I wanted to climb trees, but I wanted to wear a dress while doing it,” she said.
In elementary school, her teachers would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she always responded by saying a doctor.
“They would ask me what kind and I had no idea,” she said. “I just knew I didn’t want to be a nurse like the girls. I wanted to be a doctor like the boys.”
Martin said camping, firing weapons and the uniform were all things that appealed to her and ultimately led to her joining the Kentucky Army National Guard at the end of her first year in college at Western Kentucky University. She was 19 years old, entangled in an unhealthy relationship, and admittedly was not ready.
“My heart and my head were not in the right place when I went to basic training,” said Martin, who left basic training after barely a month, receiving a discharge from the military.
She returned home and worked at restaurants and in a factory sewing collars on shirts. She felt defeated. Yet, life has a funny way of placing you where you need to be and giving second chances, she said.
Martin said she met a dentist from church who was also a black woman, and she began working for the dentist as an assistant.
“Seeing her work and how far she had come and what she was accomplishing was such an inspiration to me,” said Marin. “In my life, I had never seen a black doctor except on TV, with The Cosby Show.”
Martin said she was also moved and inspired by dentistry and how dentists were able to help people and change lives.
“You fix people’s teeth and they hug you and cry because they are so thankful,” she said. “You can see the difference it makes in people and their confidence and their overall quality of life. Making that difference is so rewarding. I didn’t find the dental field; it found me.”
“Thank God for second chances,” she added.
Martin knew right away she wanted to be a dentist, but that would require finishing her undergraduate degree and going to dental school –not simple tasks. She also knew she could not afford school on her own.
“That’s when I turned to the Guard and begged for a second chance,” she said.
Martin was granted a waiver to join the Kentucky Army National Guard again. This time, she graduated basic training with honors in the top 10 percent of her class. She received the highest physical training score of her class and was named Soldier of the Cycle.
Her first job in the Kentucky Guard was driving Humvees for a transportation unit in Bowling Green. She served as an enlisted Soldier for 10 years, using benefits from the Guard to pay for her undergraduate degree from Western Kentucky University and working her way as a Solider into a medical unit in the Kentucky Guard.
Martin became a commissioned officer upon acceptance into the University of Louisville’s School of Dentistry. She used benefits from the Guard to help pay for dentistry school. Today she serves as a dentist for the Kentucky Guard and she owns her own dentistry with a close friend in Louisville.
“The Guard gave me a second chance at life,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done it without that help. I just don’t think I could have afforded it.”
Martin said the Kentucky Guard was the right fit for her over active duty because it allows “the best of both worlds.”
“As a Soldier, we get to give back to our country and communities – and we also get to enjoy civilian life,” she said.
She hopes her story motivates other young women across Kentucky and beyond.
“I just want girls and young women to know that women are awesome,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to go out there and do these things that some may think are generally geared toward men. We are women. We can do this. We can do anything.”
In 2015, Martin was deployed to Afghanistan, where she assisted in operating an emergency dental clinic. During the deployment, she missed her child’s 16 birthday.
In balancing the obstacles that life presents, she is quick to praise her husband and their children for supporting her throughout the years. She also says she could not have made it to where she is today without her business partner.
But those who know Mitisha best say she’s the inspiration.
“She is so determined with everything she sets her mind to,” said business partner Kristin Harris, who has known Martin since the two attended dental school together in 2004. “I admire her ability to give 100 percent to every project she starts, and the dedication she has to both her career and her family equally. That balance can be difficult, but she seems to carry it with ease.”
With 24 years of service and two deployments soon to be completed, Martin could retire from the Kentucky Guard. However, she continues to serve the commonwealth and her country.
“If I got out today, every time I would see someone in uniform, I would instantly miss it,” she said. “Every time I put on the uniform, I get a sense of pride just putting it on. I’m doing something worthwhile. That keeps me in.”