JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Fishnets, glitter and straight-up aggression filled Army Family Covenant Arena last week as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Bettie Brigade roller derby league held its first-ever interleague bout.

A sold-out crowd of more than 300 people watched as the GI Janes defeated the Bombshell Betties in the Battle of Derby Hill. But those that look beyond the gritty, glam-rock exterior will find that roller derby is about more than taking spills and throwing elbows.

"I think that I am a completely different person two years later than when I began," league founder and former Soldier Sarah Howard said.

Howard, who skates under the name Gloria Sass, started the league last October, hoping
to revitalize a short-lived effort to bring roller derby on base in 2008. Though the original team fizzled, Howard didn't forget the progress she made in terms of strength, self-confidence and bonds with her teammates.

The rough-and-tumble skating sport is characterized by physical contact and a generally
saucy attitude, and there's little about it that isn't one extreme or the other. It's a place where a grown woman can wear a tutu and not be ridiculed but also hit someone and get away with it.

Beyond that, though, the Bettie Brigade offers women on base a community and an outlet that's difficult to find anywhere else.

"There's so much more to it than trying to lay each other out on the track," GI Janes coach Bianca Andrews, aka Rockin' Rolla Chola, said.

Derby is a place where women can be part of a team, form bonds and simply make time for themselves.

Staff Sgt. Melissa Barajas, 17th Fires Brigade, aka Backlash, came back to roller derby after 15 years away. In that time she'd gotten married, joined the Army and had children. But when she's on the track, she can set all her other hats on the sidelines and be whoever she wants.

"(The other skaters) don't see me as that staff sergeant type I am at work. They don't see me as Melissa who I am with my family. They see me as Backlash," she said.

All told, it's a sport that breaks down loads of stereotypes about women - and not just that girls can't be aggressive.

"You can be positive and be strong," Andrews said. "That's the common misconception, that women can't work together, that we're catty."

Technical Sgt. Rebecca Schmidt, 62nd Airlift Wing, or Tasty Bits agreed.

"You'd expect with 60 girls there'd be some type of drama, but there really isn't," she said.
In fact, the Bettie Brigade offers a pretty nurturing environment. Child care is provided at practices, bouts are finished with hugs and if you hurt yourself on the track, you can fully expect teammates to turn up with food and sympathy.

Amanda Krusmark, an Army spouse, got both her daughters involved in the Bettie Bratz, the Brigade's junior league for girls 7 to 17, because she thought it would be a good influence.
Her older daughter, 8, was consistently getting in fights with other girls at school. Krusmark wanted her to have a place where she would learn to work with girls, not against them.
"It teaches them strength, and they make good friends," she said.

It turns out there's a huge market for derby culture at JBLM. In six months since forming the league, spouses, civilian employees, Soldiers and Airmen have joined in droves. The Bettie Brigade now boasts two rostered teams, a "fresh meat" team for newcomers, a travel team of league all-stars and, most recently, the Bettie Bratz.

"Girls are desperate for this, they really are," Howard said.

In the end, roller derby is one of few places where women can kick butt and retain their girliness. Just ask Jess Lundie, an Army spouse who skates as Jess in the Box.

"There's space for that toughness ... but then you get to wear fishnets and booty shorts and fantastic socks," she said.

The Bettie Brigade is currently working on plans to create the Military Roller Derby Association by creating teams on other military installations throughout the country.

Marisa Petrich: marisa.petrich