The two tattoos stamped on Austin Curry’s arms represent the two pillars in his life.
Drawn in bold script on his right arm are the words “Momma’s Boy,” in honor of his mother, Aretha Curry.
On his left, a three-deck phrase written in cursive: “My Brother’s Keeper,” for his older brother, Alex Curry.
“I decided to get ‘Momma’s Boy’ because my mom has been a big part of my life and I’m very grateful for her,” Austin said. “And I got ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ because I’ll never leave my brother. I’ve always got his back.”
Now a senior at Timberline High School — and a starting guard for the Blazers’ basketball team — Austin’s family structure has always consisted of his mother and Alex.
Though, the three haven’t always been in the same place.
Originally from Georgia, Austin was 5 years old when his mother told him she’d be leaving.
Aretha enlisted in the Army in 2003, near the beginning of the Iraq War, and completed 10 weeks of basic training and another five weeks of AIT.
“The hardest part was leaving (Austin and Alex), because I’d never left them for a long period of time,” Aretha said.
She returned to Georgia for two weeks before being stationed in Germany in October — her sons would stay behind when she left from the Atlanta airport.
“Austin wouldn’t let me go,” Aretha said. “It was the hardest thing to leave them again. It was a very hard day.”
Austin and Alex stayed with their grandmother, Gloria Curry, before flying to Germany the following June. Austin, his mother and his brother lived in the military community of Kaiserslautern (or K-town) for the majority of the following eight years.
But the initial reunion between Aretha and her two sons was, again, short-lived.
“I knew there was a strong possibility that I was going to deploy, that was in the back of my head,” Aretha said.
Her unit deployed to Iraq little more than a year after Austin and Alex arrived in Germany.
During Aretha’s yearlong deployment between October 2005 and 2006, her sons split time living with their grandmother in Georgia and their great aunt, Rita Malone, in North Carolina.
Aretha — an E-6 rank who works in medical supply — stayed inside the wire during her deployment, but said there were times when she questioned if she’d see her sons again.
“Being in Iraq — I never talk to them about it — but Iraq has a lot of memories,” Aretha said. “I’ve seen more than I wanted to.”
Her living area was mortared often. One morning, she woke up and an RPG had gone through one of the trailers and knocked things off of the wall.
“It was a very scary experience, and I never told them, but I often wondered if I was ever going to come home,” Aretha said.
Communication was brief. Aretha would stand in line for an hour to get two minutes to talk to her sons on the phone.
“They would try to get everything in they could tell me,” she said. “About school, Grandma is good, when are you coming home, Mommy? I want you to come home.”
Six months into her deployment, Aretha briefly returned to Georgia for R&R, and the family visited Disney World for a week.
“But then I had to leave them again,” Aretha said. “Once again, they cried. It never gets easy. They adjust to it, but it never gets easy for my kids.
“I cry when I get on the plane. I never cry in front of them. For me, that’s the hardest part, especially being a single parent, because I’m all they have.”
The next home stay was longer. When Aretha returned from Iraq, she brought her sons back to Germany, where they spent six more years before her unit was reassigned to Washington in September 2012.
It took longer for the family to adapt to the new living environment, and Aretha said Austin would sometimes tell her he wanted to go home to Germany.
“Right around Christmas he adjusted,” Aretha said. “When he started back playing ball, that’s what fulfilled him, because that’s when he made all of his friends.”
And basketball is what would help carry Austin through his mother’s next absence the following October.
“She came into the living room and said, ‘My unit got deployed again, so I have to go,’ ” Austin said. “I was older, but I still cried when she left.”
This time, Aretha would deploy to Afghanistan for a nine-month tour.
“Alex took it better because he was older,” Aretha said. “But Austin, once again, was like, ‘Why? Why do you have to deploy? Can they leave you behind?’ I was like, ‘No, baby. I have to go.’ ”
Austin stayed put in Washington when his mother left.
“It was really scary,” he said. “I worried about her, but I knew she would take care of herself.”
And Alex, who was about two weeks into his first semester at the University of Toledo, returned to become Austin’s legal guardian. It fulfilled a promise Alex had made to look after his brother if their mother was deployed again.
“I wasn’t ready because I’d never taken care of somebody else,” Alex said. “All I’ve ever had to take care of is myself. Having to cook and take him to doctor’s appointments and doing parent/teacher conferences definitely helped me mature a lot quicker at 20 years old than I was ready for.”
Alex — who is five years older than Austin — found a job as a freight stocker at WinCo Foods and also attended community college in addition to his parental duties.
“He was pretty much my role model at that time,” Austin said. “I looked up to him, taking care of me. He cooked, cleaned, went grocery shopping, made sure I had clothes, washed my clothes, did dishes — all of that.”
Though, Austin took on more responsibility as well. He learned how to cook, go to the bank and drive.
“I became more responsible and took care of stuff,” Austin said. “I just became a young man.”
But his mother’s absence did take a toll. Though he was able to communicate with her via social media, Timberline coach Allen Thomas said Austin was still noticeably worried.
“He was kind of struggling, but he kept his spirits up,” Thomas said. “We did a lot of team stuff and tried to keep him involved and made it a family type atmosphere.”
Basketball became an outlet.
“When I get on the court, it’s strictly business,” Austin said. “It was just something to keep my mind off of things.”
On July 16, 2014, the weight was finally lifted.
Austin and Alex met their mother at JBLM with a bouquet of lilies and a welcome home sign.
“They line us up and we march in and our family members are over there screeching,” Aretha said. “The little kids, they try to hold them back, but some you just can’t because they see Mommy and Daddy and take off.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Austin standing over there.”
And she ran to him and Alex.
“She was crying a lot,” Austin said. “I was just happy. Very happy.”
Aretha recalls it as “the best day in the world.”
“I joined the Army for my kids because I wanted to give them a better life and benefits, but there are sacrifices that come with it,” she said. “There are down times to it, but I can’t see doing anything else than what I do. I love soldiers, and I love military.”
This will be the family’s last Christmas in Washington. Aretha will attend an internship program in Fort Detrick, Maryland, next summer. Alex plans to enlist in the Army after Austin graduates in June.
“That was my main goal,” Alex said. “I didn’t want to leave and get stationed somewhere where I couldn’t get back and watch him graduate.”
Austin — who has attracted college attention from The Evergreen State College and other schools around the country — will finish his senior season on the basketball court.
With his mother, often still in uniform, cheering from the stands — as she did for every game last season.
“When his mom came back, it seemed like a weight was lifted off his shoulders,” Thomas said. “He was happy-go-lucky, he was just flying around.”
Austin’s teammate, Tariq Romain, noticed the change, too.
“One game, his mom came back, and he was like, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Romain said. “It was me and him, steals after steals, and it was just fun. You can tell when he’s really happy.”
Thomas said that Austin plays harder when Aretha attends games.
“She’s like a superwoman,” Austin said. “She went through a lot, raising two boys by herself. I know that can be hard. She’s just amazing.”
He recorded a double-double — including a team-high 21 points — on Tuesday against South Kitsap before addressing his mother after the game.
“He’s like, ‘Mom, I’m back,’ ” Aretha said.
And so is she.