By Jean Janes
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) offers many programs and activities designed to support military families as they face frequent moves and deployments, but none are quite like the Bettie Brigade, JBLM’s roller derby team. A rough and tumble sport, roller derby may at first glance seem a menacing way to socialize with other military families, but I recently had the opportunity to meet some of the team and to attend an exhilarating scrimmage. I now find that, while as competitive as any other group getting together for a sporting event, the women of the Bettie Brigade also convey a sense of family and support, military pride and camaraderie.
The scrimmage opens with the national anthem. A young skater from the U18 team, the “Bettie Bratz,” glides around the track holding the American flag aloft as spectators and players sing and salute together. The teams and their players are introduced, and the Bratz begin their “bout,” or game. The whistle blows, and the first “jam” begins.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Reynolds, known by her derby name, “Fuhgeddaboudit,” explain the rules. A jam is much like a play in football in that each is a short play for points. Each team has five players on the track at a time: one “jammer,” and four “blockers.” The jammer is the player designated to earn points by making it through the line of four opposing blockers. The blockers do their best to keep the opposing jammer from getting though while also trying to force an opening for their own jammer. Points are earned when the jammer breaks through the blockers, laps the pack and makes it past the blockers a second time. The jammer earns one point per passed opposing team member, and then again with each repeated lap and pass.
Rampant brutality will land players in the penalty box so skaters benefit by being fast and dexterous on their wheels. Still, under no illusions regarding the dangers of roller derby, Reynolds admits, “There is chance for injury, but it’s a physical sport.” Like any demanding contact sport, the track is all business, “but as soon as the last whistle blows, everybody’s like a big family…any problems you had on the track get left on the track, and everybody’s cool with everybody.” Each jam can last up to two minutes unless the lead jammer, or the first of the two jammers to make it through the pack of blockers, ends the jam by tapping her hips several times. The bout is made up of two 30-minute-periods with a 15-minute half time.
Thanks to Reynold’s assistance, I was better able to appreciate the details of the scoring system, the strategy of the players, and the skills of the skaters. As the adult bout begins, the technique is evident, as well as the ferocity and determination of the skaters. Some are military spouses, but there are also dependents and active military in the mix. Erin Dafoe known as “Foxy Blocker,” co-founder and head coach of the Bettie Bratz, says they currently have players on their rosters ages 18 to 45. All derby enthusiasts are encouraged to join in the bedlam.
As a military spouse, Reynolds founded a roller derby league while in Japan. Now having made a military move to JBLM, “I came here and they had open arms for me. Being a founding member of my last league, it was hard to leave.” Upon joining the Bettie Brigade, Reynolds has found more than just a new team. She has extended her military family. She reflects, “To come here and get such a warm welcome was a very wonderful thing.”
The crowd goes wild as each point is earned. The enthusiasm seems far too robust for a crowd as small as 100 or less, especially considering that this is just an informal scrimmage, but there is no false motivation for these devotees. More than just the appreciation of roller derby unites the Bettie Brigade and their fans.
The team president Adrianne Pavlik, also known as “Annie Mae-Hem,” describes, “It’s two-fold: I like the derby sport itself and I like this team and I’ve been told that this team is different than a lot of other teams because its military and we know a lot of the challenges that each person is facing and I think that makes us special.”
Pavlik volunteers her time and knowledge in business and marketing to help promote and assist her team. In fact, all positions on and off the track are voluntary. For each involved, it is a labor of love, devotion, and duty. Pavlik admits frankly, “Mostly, I just keep coming because I like these women so much. Everyone is so encouraging.”
As the final whistle blows, the teams and fans exchange cheers and appreciation for a game well played. In the meantime, I notice a few of the spectators have started to gather their things and head towards the door, but not in the mad rush to beat traffic that accompanies most sporting events. Instead, people begin folding their own chairs to set them neatly against the wall while still more begin collecting trash. The Bettie Brigade and their fans engender an environment of military appreciation and support, and have a great time doing it.