Strong will fuels female Soldier toward new path
March 13, 2018
(This is part one of a two part story.)
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. —Justine Bottorff’s eyes flicker with intensity as she lifts herself over a 15-foot obstacle near the hilly brush of Fort Leonard Wood. Her boots pound an obstacle course’s rocky trail as a Soldier carrying a timer runs alongside a few paces away. Afterward, she doesn’t have a second to breathe before she must walk a wooden tightrope bridge for the next timed hurdle.
The challenges she faces as part of the 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition pale next to the dangers she faced in the deserts of Iraq.
Bottorff deployed to the Middle East during the height of the Iraqi insurgency, seeing injuries so intense they pushed her to her limit.
After leaving the Army, Bottorff attended undergraduate courses at the University at Buffalo, New York.
At Buffalo, she struggled to retain short-term memories and said she experienced problems focusing. So in 2011, less than a year after leaving the Army, she drove to the nearby Veteran’s Affairs regional office.
There, she sought the help of a clinical neuropsychologist, who later told her that her brain and cognitive functions had changed. The doctor said her problems could be traced to her combat deployments.
In the Company of Men
On a late June night in 2007, Bottorff flew out of Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, for a 14-month deployment to southern Iraq, during the deadliest period for Americans since the Iraq invasion.
In January of that year, President Bush had ordered 20,000 additional troops to provide more security for U.S. forces from the western border of the Al Anbar Province to Baghdad in the east. More than 900 U.S. troops lost their lives in 2007.
Travelling on busy roads near the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah, 200 miles south of Baghdad, Bottorff rode in armored Humvees with convoy escort teams. At 19 years old, she joined desert patrols as a combat medic, on squads that transported supplies to U.S. bases from Contingency Operating Base Adder. During the days Bottorff weathered through sweltering heat and blistering sandstorms and at night her body fought through the shock of 40-degree temperature drops.
Female Soldiers often must earn the respect of their male counterparts by proving themselves on the job, she said.
“What I always have to remind myself,” Bottorff said, “is that every time I go somewhere new, I’m meeting a whole new group of men who may have never worked with a female before.”
But Bottorff, her peers say, defies stereotypes. She never hesitated to do something her male counterparts could do, whether lifting heavy equipment or performing a drill. A former high-school athlete, she learned to be tougher than the boys early in life.
While growing up in rural upstate New York, Bottorff often grappled with her brothers in wrestling matches. Through strenuous workouts, she built herself an athletic frame that allowed her to keep up with males during physical labors, even when working in the field where she often was the only woman.
So just one year removed from her high school graduation, Bottorff, a Soldier from a blue- collar, upstate New York town, found herself in the middle of the Iraqi insurgency.
Near Adder, U.S. convoys sometimes would drive through improvised explosive devices and blasts would rip through the vehicles causing injuries.
When an IED hit the convoy, Bottorff didn’t hesitate to act. She would often treat a Soldier or an injured civilian on the gravel, often with security troops firing gunshots over her head to protect the convoy.
“You really just go into autopilot,” Bottorff said. “I almost felt like everything was going in slow motion and I almost felt like I was watching myself.”
She worked in the grimmest conditions imaginable, giving medical attention to blast victims, some who had missing limbs. Clad in her battle helmet and heavy combat vest, she bandaged wounds, inserted breathing tubes and placed patients’ arms in tourniquets. Bottorff would also medically evacuate fallen Soldiers and civilians.
The convoys, maybe six Humvees escorting 30 trailers loaded with supplies, often took the same road each day, making them vulnerable targets for insurgency attacks. Bottorff’s team had to remain vigilant.
“It was so much anxiety, constantly anticipating it,” Bottorff said. “It’s almost better when something does happen, because then you have something to do.”
When the realities of working on the battlefield crept in, her fellow Soldiers counted on her to lighten the mood. When her former colleague, now-Sgt. 1st Class Tiari Ventura, would leave a meeting stressed or flustered, Bottorff would tell a joke or offer a Twinkie.
Ventura said even in the worst circumstances, Bottorff didn’t crack.
“The first time you smell someone that’s burnt … [you learn] it’s a smell you don’t ever want to smell and you probably will never forget. Some people just can’t get past that. Some people can’t get past seeing little children injured,” said Ventura, now a detachment sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “But she was able to deal with it all. She did it with a smile. Even when things bothered her, she smiled.”
Treating the wounded came natural to Bottorff. Well before she buttoned her first combat uniform in the Army, as a youth in upstate New York, she was already tending to the injured.
“You can’t fix them all,” Charlie Luther told his niece, Justine, then 7 years old.
In their small apartment complex in Herkimer, New York, Justine bandaged wounded animals she found fallen on the concrete trail and woods nearby: birds in fallen nests. Squirrels with injured limbs. Snakes who had suffered cuts.
She’d cautiously carry her patients to her uncle Charlie, and he would show her how to bandage the wounds until the animals became strong enough to go back to the wild. Justine learned to care for people as well, long before joining the Army as a combat medic.
Justine’s father, Chet Allen, often did not play a large part in his children’s lives. Both her parents worked long hours. Her father withdrew himself from family activities, she said, often sitting alone on the couch while his children went outdoors. When Justine’s parents divorced while she was in the eighth grade, she had to grow up quickly.
“I feel like I’ve been 40 since I was 13,” she said.
One day in 1997, as her uncle sat in his apartment, he received an urgent call from his niece.
Justine’s younger brother, Taylor, had hit her other brother, Max, with a toy truck, creating a deep cut in his forehead. She applied pressure to his wound, slowing the blood until an ambulance arrived.
Growing up with an absent father and a mother who had to work long hours as a nurse to support her and her three siblings, Justine often took a parental role helping her mother, Laurie Reynolds, raise her younger brothers.
She taught her brothers how to defend themselves, she said. Each morning, she would wake up her brothers and make sure they attended school ready and on time. She’d also stand up to neighborhood bullies on playgrounds. She taught her younger brothers to stand up for themselves.
“People think that because I was the only girl that (I) had all these brothers protecting me,” Justine said. “Really, in my life, it was completely the opposite. I took care of them. I protected them.”
Eventually, Taylor and Max would follow their older sister into the Army. Taylor, now a sergeant, graduated from the Army’s Ranger and Infantry Schools at Fort Benning. Max finished six years of active duty, also as a combat medic.
After Justine’s dad eventually left the family, she turned to her uncle Charlie for advice. She’d talk to him about school, about her family and about boys. Charlie knew the responsibility that fell on her shoulders and he talked to her like an adult.
“He was like a father to me,” Justine said.
Uncle Charlie had also been in the service, having enlisted in the Army in the mid-1980s as a canine paratrooper. But spinal ailments forced him into an early discharge after basic training. But he still thought the Army was a good option.
Charlie told his niece about the world outside of Herkimer and encouraged her to join the Army too, so that she could leave the small town behind. Justine decided she would join the service while filling out college applications at Herkimer High School in 2005.
Herkimer, a rural town of less than 10,000, sitting just south of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, didn’t have much to offer Justine. She grew up in near poverty there, where the average family income hovers at around $40,000. In Herkimer, she spent many of her days playing in the center quad of housing complex where she lived. She spent summers buying 10-cent popsicles at the small convenience store down the street and playing games with her brothers.
As a youth, she said she remembers, she wanted to leave behind her dysfunctional home life and get as far removed from Herkimer as possible.
“I never wanted to be like my parents,” Justine said. “I just remember being like really unsatisfied and (Charlie) kind of (gave me) that broader worldview. It never even occurred to me that I would ever stay in Herkimer. Like I always knew that I was going to high school and I would graduate, and I would leave.”
You’ll Always Remember Your Drill Sergeant
Bottorff eventually did leave Herkimer. She joined the Army as her uncle Charlie had suggested. And when the time came around for Bottorff to leave active duty, she did something she thought she would never do: she joined the Army Reserve, and also applied for Drill Sergeant School.
One positive recollection from the Army remained heavy in her memory: her drill sergeants. When Bottorff attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the summer of 2006, Sgt. Edward Wilhite and Staff Sgt. Scott Legg made a positive impression on her.
The decision to be a drill sergeant didn’t come easy, though, as Bottorff initially planned to leave the Army behind her, and focus on her career in emergency care.
But if she could graduate from the drill sergeant academy, Bottorff thought, she could maybe make a difference and become the leader she never had the chance to be while on deployments to the Middle East.
While waiting to receive orders to attend the Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy as a member of the Army Reserve, Bottorff also had set her sights on a civilian career as well. She hoped to treat patients as an emergency medicine physician.
Stranger On Campus
During her two combat deployments, she treated dozens of blast and gunshot wounds along-swept desert roads.
But during her undergraduate years attending the University at Buffalo, Bottorff battled injuries that she could not heal.
At 23, Bottorff remembers sitting through to the end of a world civilization course at UB. When the other students picked up their bags and laptops to leave class, Bottorff realized she couldn’t recall a word of her professor’s lecture.
“What just happened?” Bottorff said she remembered thinking, as she walked out of the classroom. She found that the same sharp mind she’d used as a young Soldier to improve productivity in her Fort Bragg unit suddenly couldn’t recall a single lecture point.
On active duty, she’d peppered her Army supervisors with questions about Army regulations or proper medical procedures. Her brain had been a ready sponge as a Soldier, absorbing information that helped her instinctively act during pressure situations. Bottorff likened her Army training to muscle memory — training both her body and mind to carry out emergency care under heavy pressure.
As a high school student, she’d made the honor roll and National Honor Society. Class lessons had come so easy to her before her active-duty years.
But now, in her first semester on the bustling campus, she couldn’t focus on her professor’s words. She couldn’t process information well enough to scribble notes. When she opened a textbook, a single page could take her more than an hour to read.
Taking notes, she said, became a dizzying chore. And she struggled to recall class lessons. Bottorff experienced strange symptoms and found she could no longer make short-term memories as easily.
She noticed other strange things as well. She winced at bright lights. Loud noises would startle her. Friends said she would snap at them during casual conversations and she struggled to sleep at nights.
Frustration soon boiled into anger. Bottorff sought help at Buffalo’s VA office, where she took psychological evaluation tests. Tests revealed she had symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injury and some similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bottorff learned that the trauma she experienced in Iraq likely caused the effects. She said hits to her head during Army airborne training could have caused further harm. Eventually, she lost her academic scholarship.
There would be no consolation for Bottorff. Her dream of becoming an emergency care doctor — to rise from the poverty she grew up in — was apparently dashed. Instead, she faced the tough reality of re-evaluating her dreams.
“It was just really hard because I always identified as a really smart person,” Bottorff said. “So to feel like that part of you is gone … You gave the Army a part of yourself [and now] you’re not ever going to be the same again. You can’t be the person that you wanted to be.”
When walking amid the mass of students on Buffalo’s north campus, the normally outgoing Bottorff became quiet. The school’s 30,000 student population was triple that of Herkimer. Friends knew Bottorff loved being around people; she enjoyed talking to strangers like old acquaintances. When visiting a nearby Denny’s with friends, Bottorff would be the first to strike up a conversation with the server.
“She’ll make a friend in like two seconds,” said her rowing teammate Cassie Nicola. But her first semester at Buffalo she kept to herself. Her personality changed, likely another consequence of the burden of living with images from her two combat deployments.
“I felt like an alien,” Bottorff said.
Other students would laugh, send each other photos. Bottorff knew she was different from other undergraduate students.
“To me, I’ve already dealt with life and death,” Bottorff said. “When you’ve already had so many intense amped-up experiences, other things just seem to matter less.”
Her five years of military service and two years of deployments in Iraq amounted to 17 college credits which she could not even use toward her medical degree.
Bottorff’s struggles left some friends bewildered. Ventura, who served with Bottorff at Bragg and on a 14-month deployment, remembered Bottorff as quick-witted with a razor sharp memory.
“My initial reaction was ‘not Justine, no way,’” Ventura said. “I couldn’t believe it. She was so strong-headed, so adamant.”
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.