Bottorff had survived a grueling deployment to Iraq during the height of the insurgency, serving as a well-respected combat medic. But after leaving the Army and enrolling in undergraduate courses at the University of Buffalo, New York, she struggled with focusing and short-term memories. A neuropsychologist traced the change in her brain chemistry to her combat deployments.
Bottorff said she thought about leaving it all behind --- the classmates she couldn’t relate to, the lessons that left her frustrated, and her dashed dream of working as an emergency physician.
But even under the most difficult circumstances, she never backed away from her goals.
The porcelain bowl picture and competing on the university’s Division I women’s rowing team helped alleviate her stress in the classroom. Despite the difference in their worldly experiences, she began to grow closer with her rowing teammates, something she initially did not think possible. Sleeping on an air mattress or an extra bunk, she shuffled her belongings from dorm room to dorm room, living with different rowing teammates, before she decided to move from her off-campus apartment into the undergraduate dorms.
She made friends with other veterans after founding a student veterans group at Buffalo. While she made strides in the classroom, she posted mostly “C” grades. She knew that wouldn’t be good enough for graduate study in medical school. So instead she read about Buffalo’s nursing program. With nursing, her path to an undergraduate degree and working in emergency care would be quicker.
She had note takers help her retain class material. She used a special pen that helped track information. She lightened her course load and her grades began to rise. During her junior year, she finally received orders to attend the Drill Sergeant Academy.
And finally on a cool May morning in Buffalo, with an American flag emblazoned on her graduation cap, she stepped to the podium and graduated with a degree in nursing. She reached a hurdle that once seemed a steep climb five years earlier.
“She’s incredibly intelligent, resilient, strong willed,” said friend Drew Murphy, who attended the ceremony.
BEST IN THE ARMY
On a warm September afternoon in central Missouri, Bottorff enters a bright room at Fort Leonard Wood’s Thurman Hall, where a board of sergeants major wait to evaluate her as part of the 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition.
Board members sit at a small table, ready to test and question each potential drill sergeant on how they would advise new Soldiers and how to improve basic training.
With her dark brown hair tied neatly in a military-style bun, Bottorff locks her elbows and stands at attention in her crisp, dark blue dress uniform.
The sergeants major sit behind a table as they faced three drill sergeant hopefuls. Each competing drill sergeant had to recite a familiar creed.
Bottorff begins, “I am an American Soldier ... “ She enunciates each line of the Soldier’s Creed concisely, as she would when dispensing clear instruction to new privates.
Seven drill sergeants made the finals. Bottorff is the only female drill instructor among them. Women joined the Army’s drill sergeant ranks in the 1970s, and though their numbers in the drill sergeant corps continue to rise, women remain heavily outnumbered by men.
To her right stands Staff Sgt. Sean Jolin, a decorated combat veteran who graduated from the Army’s Ranger and sniper schools. Chiseled and standing at a shade over six feet, he towers over Bottorff.
The duties of the Army’s drill sergeants pose unique challenges, such as sleep deprivation and long hours with recruits. A drill sergeant must also adapt to changing regulations. Female drill sergeants often must lead a company of mostly men.
Bottorff earned the respect of her peers with her knowledge of basic military skills, and her dedication to physical fitness. She leads new recruits with stern commands, but a keen sensitivity. Bottorff doesn’t hold back when lecturing recruits about the realities of the operational Army.
“My little brother is in Afghanistan right now,” she’d tell them, in a cold, steely voice. “And you’re probably going to go to a unit that’s going to deploy.”
She’d ask recruits what they will do if their battle buddy falls asleep on duty. She’d tell them to be prepared if the Soldier next to them does something immoral. Occasionally, when Bottorff’s scolding about the realities of the operational Army becomes too intense, new privates shed a few tears.
But Bottorff also possesses a compassion and a strong moral core. She doesn’t hesitate to tell another drill sergeant if they abuse their authority or if they are mistreating recruits. In the fall of 2016, when her unit put an ROTC program through summer drills, a cadet fell after injuring her leg. Upset, the cadet reacted emotionally, worried that she might fall behind the other cadets and get asked to leave the formation.
“She will go the extra mile for Soldiers and things that are morally correct,” said Bottorff’s drill supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Candis Lopez. “Personally, she is very outspoken, and that does sometimes get her into trouble, but she doesn’t shy away from it. She is brave; she will stand up for what is right.”
Bottorff calmly pulled the fallen cadet aside, and assured her that she would return. Bottorff also treated the cadet’s injury, eventually allowing her to return to formation. Lopez said Bottorff will often train in the field with her privates and perform PT exercises alongside them.
At Fort Leonard Wood, Bottorff traded her campaign hat -- the distinguished head gear drill sergeants use as the symbol of their authority -- for the traditional fatigue cap. At Fort Leonard Wood, she competed in similar events as basic-training privates.
As part of the 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition, she tested her mettle in the field, she slogged through obstacle courses, she rucked through rocky, hilly terrain.
Competition planners shuffled in nervous basic training recruits to follow her in battle drill tests.
Bottorff struggled with some of the battle drills and physical training exercises. During one exercise drill on the contest’s second day, Bottorff hesitated, then realized she has forgotten the instructions.
Bottorff later wouldn’t make excuses for her performance. Though she had breezed by in the earlier levels of the competition, first winning battalion and brigade level before earning the title of top drill sergeant in the 98th Training Division last spring, she admittedly didn’t have her best days at Fort Leonard Wood.
But reaching the finals as the lone female drill, Bottorff completed an unlikely journey. Her friends say when Bottorff promises to achieve something, she does it, at times stubbornly or clumsily, but she always sees things through.
“Over the years I’ve known guys that were in ‘Nam,” Luther said. “Situations presented themselves and they shut down. I’ve never seen that in Justine. There’s a spirit in her that doesn’t quit.”
Bottorff said some symptoms from her injuries remain, but no longer have a hold on her life. Friends also notice a difference. Today her peers say they no longer see a trace of TBI symptoms.
Bottorff’s days are quiet now. As a civilian, she works as an emergency care nurse at Buffalo’s Sisters of Charity Hospital. As a Reservist, she takes periodic assignments as a drill sergeant for the 98th Training Division.
She reads about how brain neurons could possibly repair themselves. The staff sergeant also says she has considered returning to college to become a trauma nurse practitioner, where she could take on additional duties assisting an emergency care physician.
Assigned to the 98th Training Division, Bottorff eagerly awaits orders to once again lead and teach new Soldiers in the ways of the service and immerse herself in the culture of an Army that once left her troubled.
“I don’t think that someone like Drill Sergeant Bottorff is ever completely finished,” Lopez said. “She’s always aiming for something. Always, trying to achieve her (next) goal.”