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 though 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 care 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.
Bottorff keeps a picture of a broken porcelain bowl on her phone. The text underneath reads “kintsukuroi,” or the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold, effectively making the bowl more beautiful. Bottorff imagined the bowl as a metaphor for her life circumstances after returning from her deployments.
“You don’t stay broken because something bad happened to you,” Bottorff said.
The picture and competing on UB’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 contestant 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 contestants. 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. 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 drills 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 to 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.”