When Staff Sgt. Brianna Carter joined the Army after graduating from Hanford High School, she had visions of becoming a tough woman warrior in the military police.
"I was a pretty gung-ho person. I wanted to take somebody down," she said.
But life often doesn't go as planned, and when no jobs were open in the military police, Carter's career took an unexpected turn into the mental health field.
The 26-year-old Richland native, now stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, trained as a behavioral health technician working with combat soldiers as they encounter stress and trauma in the field or while trying to transition back into civilian life.
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Her work took the mother of three young boys on a nine-month deployment to southern Afghanistan, where roadside bombs are a fact of life and leave their scars -- physical and mental -- on the troops who risk their lives each day.
She was part of a three-person team that traveled from base to base offering soldiers a listening ear and techniques for coping with the stress of combat.
"There were thousands of soldiers for three of us to take care of," Carter said.
She described Afghanistan as a harsh place where everything is brown and dusty, and buildings tend to be ramshackle and made of wood.
"You rarely see paint on a wall," she said. "It's a rarity you ever see anything green. There are dust storms and camel spiders. Some of the local people are very friendly, but you always have to watch your back."
The constant vigilance can take its toll. Carter said in her experience, soldiers who have been deployed to combat zones tend to go through similar phases -- first, the anxiety of adjustment to an environment unlike anything they're likely to have known before.
"Myself -- I even got anxious," she said.
Around the middle of a soldier's deployment, anger and the desire to just go home can set in.
"They feel stuck," she said.
But toward the end, relief comes when they know they'll soon be home, she said.
"It also depends on what they're doing over there," she said. "The guys who go over there and are clearing IEDs (improvised explosive devices) off the road have it hard."
For Carter, the hardest part of being deployed was being separated from her husband Will, who also serves in the Army, and their three young boys -- Elijah, 3, Brandon, 4, and Trae, 6.
"They had never been without Mom," she said.
She would talk to them over a halting Skype connection when she could, thankful for a few minutes of seeing her family on a screen.
Carter also relied on the other members of her team. Her training told her that talking to people undergoing the same experiences was important to coping with her own stress while shouldering the trauma of soldiers who needed her help.
"When we would deal with something that would really touch home for us, something heart-wrenching that we couldn't get out of our heads, when we took that whole soldier's burden on us, we would talk to each other," Carter said. "We would find ways to take care of each other. Maybe have a movie night or a girls' night in, or go have ice cream if there was ice cream."
Since she returned to the United States about three weeks ago, she finds that sharing her experiences -- with a school group or even in a newspaper interview -- helps her deal with the things she saw and heard in Afghanistan.
"I'm not a bottle-up type of person," she said.
She said that sharing can be an important tool for any soldier coming home after combat.
"I advise other soldiers to share experiences with other soldiers," she said. "I advise them to open up to a chaplain or to see a behavioral health technician just to talk."
Some soldiers are reluctant to seek out mental health treatment because they fear stigma -- or that they'll be discharged from the military and their careers ruined, she said.
"That's not always true," Carter said. "(I tell them) if you have an issue that you just need to vent, come talk to me. ... We can have a conversation soldier to soldier."
She was glad to hear a Vet Center office has opened in the Tri-Cities where combat soldiers can get counseling from other combat soldiers who understand that most people are changed by the experience of being deployed to a war zone.
"We come home and things aren't the same. We hear a car backfire and we want to hit the floor. My mom wants to take me to Walmart and I get around a lot of people and I feel anxious. Having my back to a door makes me feel anxious," she said.
It's also important for soldiers' families to give patience and understanding to someone recently returned home.
"Patience is the key. Just be supportive and let them know you appreciate everything they've done," she said.