Although the fire teams were four-person crews, we had an honorary fifth man on the “A Team”: P Dawg. She was an Air Force nurse from Wisconsin and she had the cheese head wedge to prove it. She also had the innocent face and sweet smile of the girl next door, combined with the sharp wit and colorful language of the girl I wanted to sit next to at a party. To go along with her terrific ‘Sconsin accent, she also brought a renewed energy that made me, and everybody else she hung around, fall in love. We became fast friends sharing our stories of heartbreak and rejuvenation around the barracks room table as we sifted through the best military rations (Packaged Jalapeño cheese spread for your flattened, sponge-like crackers? Yes, please). Everybody needs a P Dawg on her deployment. I gravitated towards her because she was just full of good.
When I wasn’t hanging with Nurse P, I was learning field manuevers with the self-proclaimed, second-coming of the A Team. We didn’t have gold chains, a mohawk or a sweet van, but we did have helmets, kevlar vests and weapons. The basis of the training, according to our trainers, was to become “less of a liability.” With the bar set so low, we paid careful attention to the things we were told, but kept a fun outlook. Any pre-deployment training has the pall hanging over it of maybe not coming home again. We were not immune to the seriousness of where we were going in just a few days, but we inoculated through humor.
In the arctic tundra that is Wyoming in January, we practiced land navigation skills and found lots of barbed wire fences where there weren’t supposed to be any, frozen lakes that almost made the perfect shortcut until we fell into them, stiffened snow that looked sturdy and solid until it had the weight of me and my Kevlar vest on top of it, and plenty of unfriendly cacti. When we were training indoors, we re-enacted scenes from a Youtube sensation video, vocalizing “LEEEEEEROY JENKINS,” as we practiced kicking in doors, seeing around corners without sticking our necks out to be shot off, and clearing plywood rooms of imaginary Taliban. We even learned how to exit a rolled over armored carrier vehicle, yelling “Roll over, roll over, roll over,” (as if that would be my reaction in real life) before becoming completely disoriented and trying to figure out where the door was—it was like pin the tail on the donkey where you’re blindfolded, spun around until you almost vomit and then told to grab your M-4 carbine weapon and get out. Being in that chassis was tantamount to being flipped around like Bingo balls in a shuffle cage.
I have a forever memory of that day because Nurse P thought to take a picture of the four of us after we finally figured out where the door was to exit the rolled over armored carrier vehicle. It’s one of my all-time favorite photos from any deployment. Both my bulletproof vest and my teammates dwarfed me, and I had a black eye from the kick back of my M-4 against my cheek at the shooting range the day before. Brandon, Knotts and Brinkley looked strong, solid, confident and healthy. They looked like they could take care of themselves if the enemy struck. They looked like their legs were mighty strongholds, not likely to be swept out from underneath them by the unexpected. They looked badass. And so did I.