a new kind of community
July 1, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- There are some things so powerful they span oceans " and it turns out military roller derby is one of them.
In the last few years the rough and tumble women’s sport has taken off, and military installations are no exception. Now, with teams and leagues cropping up on bases around the world, the growing network of servicemembers and spouses who skate is getting organized.
“It seems like there’s this wave of girls in the service (who) are seeing something in this,” said Sarah Howard, a former Soldier and Army spouse at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Howard, who started the JBLM Bettie Brigade derby league last October, recently kicked off her next project " the Military Women’s Roller Derby Association, or MWRDA.
The international network of leagues (and those trying to start leagues) launched about a month ago and is already growing. The idea is to connect the teams that already exist on or near installations worldwide and help new teams form, so when women receive orders to change stations, a derby team will be ready and waiting.
In actuality, Howard is building more than a network of teams. She’s creating a community of women who can rely on each other in ways difficult to find off base.
“To me, it’s what the Army used to be,” Renee Mora, an Army spouse at Fort Irwin, Calif., said in a phone interview.
Over the past few months, Howard has been helping Mora start up a team for spouses and Soldiers.
The next closest team is more than an hour away, and while Mora started skating with them in May, she craved the sense of support she felt on base when her husband joined the Army nine years ago.
Mora remembers moving in at her first duty station and having neighbors immediately come over and welcome her.
Now she’s seeing less and less of that connection, but the need for it is as great as ever.
In roller derby she felt it instantly, but starting a team on a military installation is no simple task.
Aside from training skaters, many of whom have no experience at all, the paperwork and approval process to get set up on base is a huge hurdle.
That’s where MWRDA comes in. Howard, having done this all herself with the Bettie Brigade, can give advice from someone who’s been there " and if she can’t, the association surely includes someone who can.
Through Skype, phone calls, e-mail and online forums women all over the world are using the group as a resource.
In fact, the Bettie Brigade is planning to send a small team to Fort Irwin this summer to help the new team master the sport.
Traveling to train and play other teams is something Howard hopes to do more of in the future.
“MWRDA is amazing,” Mora said. “I can’t believe that a group of women I’ve never met is working so hard to help me.”
Rossana Kistler, a Navy spouse stationed at Naples Support Activity in Italy, has had a similar experience with the organization.
She’s never played derby and doesn’t even have a skating rink on base to use.
What she does have is a pair of skates, a group of interested women and the determination to see it through " and an Internet connection that allows her to Skype Howard nine time zones away.
“I’m excited about the sport aspect of it,” Kistler said via Skype. “I’m competitive.”
Kistler nearly got rid of her roller skates, a nostalgic nod at her childhood, before moving to Italy but something stopped her.
Once in Naples, she started reading about military derby teams, including the Bettie Brigade at JBLM.
Later this summer she’ll be traveling to train with the K-Town Roller Girls at Ramstein Air Force Base near Kaiserslautern, Germany.
For Kistler, it’s a way to integrate into a new community quickly and easily, no small task for military people.
The sport provides a place for spouses and servicemembers alike to jump right in and start making friends, and when it’s located on base they can be assured it’s a community that understands them.
“I definitely think (the bond) is amplified because we all know what it is ... to move and have to rebuild your connections,” Mora said of military derby.
Recently she found herself stranded 35 miles from home with a broken down car and her 16-year-old daughter. She called one of her husband’s battle buddies, who couldn’t come help.
Then she called one of her roller girls, who had barely heard the story before she was on her way to get them.
For Howard, this is one of the main points. Civilian derby associations already exist, and some have wondered why there’s a need to start something new.
“Because when I come to practice every day I have to give my card to a guy with a gun,” she said.
Because she might get a call from a derby girl about to deploy, who needs a friend who understands that.
Because she’s heard from widows who just want to skate with people who have some idea of what they’re going through.
Women like Mora, Howard and Kistler are all in, and hope to see MWRDA grow.
The reason is simple: they move. They will move again. And each time they will have to rebuild their lives.
“I know if there’s another derby team, I’ll already have a home,” Mora said.
Marisa Petrich: firstname.lastname@example.org