By Spc. Michael J. MacLeod, 1st BCT, 82nd Abn. Div. PAOSeptember 14, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - The Army issued them male and female, but girl and guy prevailed.
On a bench outside of a Fort Bragg gym, the couple reminisces on their coming together.
"We were dating for quite a while," said Sgt. Deny Caballero, who was born in Panama and is an infantry team leader with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. "I brought Catilina home to my mom in Tennessee.
It's true, she drives a big, off-roading jeep, wears boots and a ball cap, and is an expert martial artist - she's more macho than all of my friends.
"But my mom loved Cat from the very beginning. So on Christmas Eve morning, she gave me this antique family ring. I was making breakfast, so I put the ring inside one of Cat's blueberry pancakes," Deny said.
"His cooking is amazing," says Sgt. Catilina Caballero, his wife and fellow paratrooper in 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Easily mistaken for Hispanic with dark hair and piercing hazel-green eyes, the force protection specialist, who serves with 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, is actually of northern European descent.
"The first time he cooked for me, I remember looking at him thinking, 'Wow, there's a lot more to you than Soldier,'" she says.
"The entire Family crowded around, and he said to me, 'Okay, here are your pancakes.' I asked, 'What happened to it' Did you drop it' Holy cow, there's a ring.'"
Catilina rocked in her seat as she delivers the winning line. "So I said maybe, maybe not."
"She started crying," Deny counters.
"I did not start crying."
"Yes you did. She's still a little bit of a girly girl."
Deny and Catilina Caballero got married in April. By summer's end, both would be deploying to Iraq, separated by hundreds of square miles of baking sand, blast walls of their forward operating bases, and the commitment of the mission.
"I know my wife will be in a combat zone, so I'll have that worry," said Deny. "But as noncommissioned officers, we worry about our mission and Soldiers first. Catilina is an outstanding Soldier and NCO who fully understands her job. She is also a paratrooper in the 82nd."
Friends who knew the couple through the years are amazed and a little envious.
"When we first met, my wife was your typical tomboy, comfortable getting dirty fishing and camping. Our battalion had a ball not too long ago, and my old friends who remembered that Cat, saw her walk in wearing this amazing gown - the most stunning, beautiful woman in the world.
"I have that all-American girl who is just amazing at whatever she is doing."
The couple met at the 82nd's replacement company.
"I first saw him in formation, and the first thought I had was, 'Hmm, I'm going to have to stay away from that one,' but we went out that night, and I annihilated him in a game of pool," said Catilina.
"We started off as best friends," said Deny. "I hate to phrase it this way, but she was like one of the guys." He learned that she had been a professional artist prior to enlisting, an adrenaline junky fueled by a close relationship with an outdoors-loving father from Atlanta.
Over time, the infantry sergeant, who describes himself as a "strict, by-the-book guy," was falling for the girl.
To avoid the appearance of impropriety, Cat and Deny always met in public places, more often than not, to study for their respective promotion boards.
"My command views the rank of sergeant as a rank that has to be earned," said Catilina, on becoming an NCO. "If I wanted it, I would have to fight for it. I was required to go to a Soldier-of-the-Month board first to ensure that I was NCO material. For my promotion board, my husband really helped. Even in Iraq, way before the promotion when I was a private, my husband would go over the questions for his board and my board."
He also gave her little nuggets of gold. Never be afraid to make a decision, even a wrong decision. Don't blame a Soldier. If you make a mistake, stand up for your guys and own up to your mistakes. There is nothing worse than an NCO who won't help his Soldier advance to the next level.
"The thing about becoming an NCO," Deny explains, "is that you have to know how to lead from the minute they pin the rank on. She didn't really struggle with it - she just needed a little encouragement to pick up the reins."
Off the clock:
At home, having two NCOs in the house is often a boon, said the couple.
"I think we have an edge above other couples because we have a unique team. I do the cooking," said Deny.
"...and I do the cleaning," said Catilina.
He makes sure they're up in the morning. She makes him take care of himself.
"He has a hard landing from a jump and says, 'I have a tingling sensation. I don't know if I should get it checked out,'" she chides.
Since the couple is issued the same equipment, they often borrow from one another, although more than once, six-foot-tall Deny has had to wear his wife's tiny T-shirt and boot socks all day after grabbing the wrong clothes from the dryer.
Focused on their careers for now, the couple said they will delay having children. Yet both said marriage has made them better NCOs.
"You learn to be explicit in your communication," says Caballero, laughing.
It's easy to get mad at your Soldiers for not understanding your intent, but not so easy to get mad at your wife, who knows your mind second only to you, he said.
"If I say PX (post exchange) thinking the mini mall and we end up at the PX, it was me not communicating accurately what I wanted. In the same way, you can't expect your guys to know exactly what you were thinking. You have to effectively communicate it."
Having found in each other a champion who spurs the other to greater heights, they said they know in their bones the value of surrounding themselves with good people.
"One of the things that attracted me to my husband is his defined sense of right and wrong. He won't just say, well I know them and I'm cool with them, so I'll hang out with them," said Catilina.
"If you hang out with dirtbags, what are people going to think'" asks Deny. "I found a wife who is a cut above the rest. If you want to be professional, surround yourself with professionals. That's what I tell my young Soldiers. Negative people are just going to keep you down," he said.
"Can you tell he loves his job'" Catalina asks.
"I do love being an NCO," he replies. "I've had bad days, but it doesn't matter. I walk into the place I want to be. And the guys I work with, I wouldn't trade them for any in the world."
Green Ramp: A year apart
The deployment of the Devil Brigade to Iraq will be the second for the Caballeros, but the first sharing a surname. Since they may be based on different forward operating bases, visiting will be tough, they concede. In the meantime, they plan to stay close through Facebook, MySpace and Yahoo Messenger.
The Army-wide embracing of social media will help, and they said they count themselves fortunate to be in a unit where the commander, Col. Mark Stammer, encourages Families to communicate through the brigade's new Facebook page (www.facebook.com/1bct82).
As NCOs they are confident in their Soldiers: their skills, equipment and attitudes, and how they will make good use of downtime.
Deny, whose company will be returning to an area in western Iraq where it was previously deployed, said he is anxious to see if his high hopes for the region have been realized. Though at times difficult, he recalls that first deployment with fondness.
"It was one heck of a ride, but sobering," he says. "I'm not taking anything away from leading troops in garrison, but no matter if you have one Soldier or a platoon, taking care of Soldiers overseas forces you to grow up."
Catilina rolls her eyes.
"What'" he asks.
"No, I agree, but remember, I deployed to Iraq as a private straight from AIT (advanced individual training) into a position meant for a much higher-qualified individual," she said.
"You had to grow up fast too," Deny laughs. "She loves to argue."
"We love to argue," Catilina said.
"But I always win," he says.
"But only because you're a logical arguer and I'm a more emotional arguer," she said. "Sometimes I just try to get him so riled up, he can't think straight, and so I win."
"But I still catch more fish."
"It's only because he has a really little hook that all the panfish jump on. Well that's not the only reason. I'm new to fishing," she said. "He is teaching me how."
"The key to a relationship is, you have to help each other throughout life," said Deny. "And that's something we are great at.
"Like her E-5 promotion, I showed her the right thing to do and how to prepare for it, but she wanted it, and she worked for it. My wife did all the work, and now she's an outstanding NCO.
"But yeah, Catalina and I have this awesome relationship where sometimes she just drives me nuts and she likes to egg it on," he said.
"The string on my dynamite is much longer than his," she said. "We love to argue. I enjoy making up."