On the first day of training, we were placed in four-person fire teams. In preparation for leaving, I packed my uniforms, my government issued bug spray and fire-retardant underwear (by the time the fire gets to my underwear, isn’t it too late?), and a year’s supply of styling mousse for my hair (trust me, no one wanted to see me without it), but I failed to really think about leading people during the deployment. I’m embarrassed to admit, my mindset was focused on my emotional and mental survival. I didn’t think about being responsible for anyone’s actual safety. I assumed there would be plenty of officers who were much higher ranking than me, and who would be placed in charge. It wasn’t until the trainers began calling the names of the fire team leads, and I heard my own, that reality began to solidify.
The trainer called roll: “Captain Clemens, Lieutenant Brinkley, Tech Sergeant Brandon and Airman Knotts. Fire Team Alpha.” Upon hearing my name called first, I slowly stood up from the metal bleachers that had been arranged in a U-shape around the warehouse and made my way toward the non-commissioned officer who bellowed. I wasn’t confident about anything, but I hoped I wasn’t letting it show. It had been nearly six years since I last deployed. I was much younger then, enlisted, happily married, complete and self-assured; not like now. Now, someone I trusted tore me down, pretty handily. He used fears, which I had armed him with in the confidence of marriage, as the very reasons he didn’t want to be with me anymore. I was a shell, like those locust casings my cousins and I used to find clinging to the trees back home in Indiana. I appeared to be real, but there was nothing inside; if too much pressure were given to my outsides, I would crumble. I was in no place to lead anyone to anywhere, let alone into a firefight, real or not.
Before even laying eyes on them, I assumed this team, all men, felt like they were stuck with me. There was only one other team led by a female, and she was one of the highest-ranking officers attending the training, a Lieutenant Colonel. No one was going to complain about her, but I thought they would feel cheated by being with me. We met up around the Sergeant in charge, and made our introductions. I choked down the urge to blurt apologies for being their fire team lead, for being a woman, and for being such a mess. I had never felt any of those doubts before in life, but I was like an abused puppy waiting to be kicked. I felt DYSFUNCTIONAL.
Just when I thought my positive attitude wasn’t going to survive the training beyond Day One, one of the other men said, “I have no idea how to do this Army stuff. I hope one of you know how to do this.” I exhaled and smiled. These weren’t rough and ready soldiers trying to prove their toughness by making others feel smaller. These were confident guys who would let you stand on their shoulders to see over the next ridge, or, as I would soon learn, pick you up out of a snow bank by the back of your pants and toss you forward. Right then and there, I decided I loved every one of them.