Staff Sergeant Brooke Bailey is as Strong as She Has to Be

I love the way I feel when I'm in that gym. - Brooke Bailey

Brooke Bailey is tougher and stronger than you. Deal with it.

Need proof? Just look at her face before she back squats. Her jaws flex, her mouth tightens, her eyes focus on some distant thing which apparently is about to have its ass kicked.

“It’s nothing personal against anybody else,” she told me. “Everybody has that zone, a dark place. You ever get in the middle of some lift, or the middle of some workout, and you know people are yelling at you and you know the music is blaring, but you don’t hear any of it?”

In case you are wondering, I haven’t. When I’m back squatting and Taylor Swift is singing “Shake It Off” on the gym speakers, on the inside, I’m singing along.

When Brooke is in that zone with that look, part of you wants to duck under her gaze or walk behind her for fear her focus might fall on you and cause your head to explode. I would not be surprised if that look is Planet Fitness’s definition of Gymtimidation.

But the most remarkable part of the “Brooke Stare of Badassery” is how fast it dissolves into a shy smile. The cliche thing to write here would be that she has a hard exterior, but is a softy on the inside once you get to know her. That’s not quite accurate. On the inside and out Brooke is hard and soft when she needs to be.

That look in the gym, or being out-lifted by her pretty much everyday, has never made me cry. But when she sat down with me to tell her story . . . Brooke Bailey made me cry. Twice.

A Rock & A Hard Place

“My mom passed away when I was four. My real dad has never been around . . .  I couldn’t even tell you my dad’s name.”

Brooke’s mom was in the process of divorcing her stepdad when she died from leukemia.

“My grandma talks about how quick it was. It’s frightening. She was 26. I’m 27. I just went to get blood work done, luckily it was fine. It terrifies me to think about my kids growing up without me because I know what that was like. It’s terrifying.”

It was at this point emotion crept into Brooke’s voice and her eyeballs started to sweat a bit.

As Brooke shared her story with me she got emotional several times, but never for herself. The tears were never for her, but always for others.

“My mom was married to a man who was not my father, but his name is on my birth certificate. She was trying to get a divorce, but it wasn’t finalized before she died. I was forced to live with him.”

“The abusiveness got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. As a 12-year-old, I was thinking things that I should not be thinking.  I wasn’t allowed to talk on the phone or get on a computer. I remember one day [my stepdad and his new wife] were gone, and I sent my cousin an email telling her what had been happening. She told my grandma, and the next day I was escorted out of Delta middle school by the police. He went scot-free.”

“I remember being in court, and he didn’t show up. My stepmom was on the witness stand.  She looked me dead in the eye and said I was making everything up.”

Her stepmom, Pam, later learned Brooke’s accusations were true and left her stepdad. Today, Pam calls Brooke her daughter and Nevaeh and Jerzi her granddaughters.

Brooke’s grandma took her in.

“My grandma is my rock.”

It wasn’t easy being the new girl at a new school. Brooke started on the varsity basketball team as a freshman at Southside.

Before Brooke won her teammates over they planned a “jump Brooke day” to put the new freshman girl in her place. Luckily it never happened, and soon they were thankful she was on their team.

“We were really, really small so I played anything but center. Basketball was always my favorite. This probably sounds terrible, but it’s a contact sport for women. I was very overly aggressive. I hadn’t learned to control it. I was taking people out. If someone did something to one of my teammates, I was going to get them back. I was laying down the law.”

Brooke excelled at basketball, softball, cross-country, and in school. She was her grandma’s golden child.

“I had all these plans. I was actually really interested in going to Evansville to play basketball or softball.”

And she had even bigger plans beyond that. She wanted to be an oncologist, perhaps working with leukemia patients.

A Single Mom Soldier

But then Brooke got pregnant. Her grandma was really upset and it took her a long time to get over it. Brooke was a single, teen mom living with her disappointed grandma. She got accepted into Ball State. The first semester of college is hard enough for an 18-year-old without an infant.

“[Having Nevaeh] just completely rocked my world . . . [Getting pregnant] really young was a bad, stupid decision of mine, but I got an awesome thing out of it.”

Brooke finished the semester and then quit Ball State, foregoing the free education provided to her by the 21st Century Scholars Program, and got a job at Sallie Mae.

It wasn’t enough.

“I had friends who [had joined the army], they were coming back different, going back to school . . .  I went into the recruitment office and said here’s all my shit, I want to join. I signed my paperwork and enlisted the following week. I didn’t even tell my grandma.  She was like, ‘What are you going to do with your kid?’  Luckily it worked out. I went to basic in Missouri and then joined the ROTC back at Ball State.”

Her second shot at Ball State ended when she wanted to change her major and the ROTC wouldn’t agree to pay for the extra semesters it would take. She applied for a temporary position as a recruiter and was hired.

“If you get pregnant, you get fired. So you know what’s coming next. It was in the spring of 2010, and six months later I got pregnant with Jerzi, so I got fired. So here I am pregnant, no job, can’t get unemployment. It just sucked. I felt like this was it. People told me when I got fired that I would never be able to get a full-time job in the military. I had Jerzi, and three months later they hired me back.”

“Every state for the Guard has an individual mission, and at the end of every recruiting year, they will select recruiters from across the state to compete. It consists of a PT (physical test), a board–the most stressful interview a soldier can be involved in, you have like 8 or 9 sergeants major and you’re in your dress uniform sweating. Just a lot of questions about soldier stuff. I won the state level and was not expecting that. All the state’s winners go to regionals.  I won regionals and went to the national board.

“I was an E5, I had no deployment, all I had was that I did my job in the right way. My competition were all E7’s, sergeants first class, except for me and one E6.  I was the only female. So I was looking around, one guy had a purple heart. They had all these medals. I had like 2 ½ rows. I was very honored to be competing with these guys. I was like, ‘I’m just going to have fun. I’m not even going to pretend like I’m going to win this thing.’”

“During the interview, one of the sergeants major told me he’s had females in the past with children and they never make it. He asked, ‘Do you know why?’  I remember looking at him and I said females with children use it as a crutch.”

“They brought us all into a room and announced I won. Later the sergeant major told me . . . I was raw.  I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. I told them what I thought.”

Brooke made National Guard history to become the only female and only Hoosier to win the Chief’s 54 National Recruiter of the Year Award.

No parents. An abusive stepdad. A teen mom. All of these things could be excuses. Brooke has no time for excuses.

Family & CrossFit

Brooke and Josh were both working from the National Guard Armory where there were pickup games of basketball every Tuesday and Thursday.
“The first time we played, Josh will tell you that he was completely caught off guard. I boxed him out like I was a guy. A big dude over six foot said I fouled him harder than he’s ever been fouled before.”

And so began a romance and the forming of a family that Arsenal Army members have watched grow over the past two years.

Brooke found the Arsenal through coach Adam James who she was training with at Studio 22, trying to get back in shape after having Jerzi.

“I would see Adam at random places, and he’d be like, ‘When are you going to try the Arsenal?’ I was like, ‘I’m not paying that much money!’  I saw him again at the Rib Fest; it was right after they had done the WOD there. He was like, ‘When are you going to sign up?  I’ll give you a free week.’ And I was sold. Other than being on vacation, I haven’t missed since. I didn’t like going to the Y, I had gym buddies, but they weren’t dependable. I need told what to do.”

“I am just as competitive as what people think. It’s not a lie. I’m not competitive in that I want other people to fail. I just have always been that way in everything that I do–CrossFit, softball, playing pass with kids, coloring, puzzles, anything. But I’ve learned to control it. I look at the leaderboard [after a WOD], and I’m like, ‘Man I really suck at CrossFit!’  I was in better shape this time last year.  I’ve got to the point where [I feel] I’m not going to the Games, I’m not going to Regionals, but I love the people I do it with. I love the way I feel when I’m in that gym. I bring my work phone and my personal phone, but I don’t even hear them ring. It’s just the atmosphere, the clarity of life I get when I’m in there.  Nowhere else in my life do I get that.”

“I’m addicted to it. I am.  We’ve got all these different groups, like Annie and Dani and Brooke and Liz and Karen and Jen, and the other moms, like all those ladies. I absolutely love ‘em.  And then I’ve got the younger group of kids that I talk to just as much. Just this past weekend I worked out with Erica and it’s a whole other thing. Like during the week, I usually work out with the 8 AM moms, and on the weekends I get to go in there with the meatheads. So it’s fun.  On Sundays we have open gym and Greg and Skyler are always in there. Greg’s leaving, that’s sad.  And then Josh and I go in there. On Saturdays, I always try to go in there and work out with Erica and Courtney and Sam and all those girls.”

When Navaeh and Jerzi aren’t in school, they come with Brooke to the gym. They see her struggle, succeed, and fail. They see the toughness in their mom.

“I think CrossFit is a really good environment for kids to get involved in. It’s healthy. They see us doing it, and they are going to be more willing to do it when they are older.”

Multiple times I asked Brooke to reflect on a moment of accomplishment in sports. She remembered scoring 33 points in a basketball game and winning the ESPN National Softball championship in 2010, but she really doesn’t remember specific moments. She would just tell me that she has a bad memory. The past made her who she is–tough and soft inside and out when she needs to be–but reflecting on it, even the good stuff, seems only important to her when she focuses on her future and the future of her family.

“There is no reason whatsoever for any child to have to go through abuse and be forgotten. It won’t happen to my kids. The kids give me things I never had.”

When Brooke lived with her stepdad, she was surrounded by material things.

“The house was awesome, there was a huge pond, two four wheelers, all the things kids want. But I would’ve traded it all for love. . . A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you so hard on your kids?’”

“Why? Because they have no idea how strong they have to be.”

Team Brooke Bailey

Yesterday some of us were doing the extra credit at the end of the WOD. It was a 10-minute EMOM of 5 burpees followed by a 50-meter sprint. I started when the group was on the third round, so when they were finished I had two rounds left.

Brooke didn’t make a production of it. She just said, “I’ll finish them with you,” as she tried to catch her breath. And she did. I tried my damndest to beat her each of those last two minutes, but she always finished first.

When we were done she showed me how to do burpees faster.

It seems like half the Arsenal members have the “Team Brooke Bailey” T-shirts she’d giveaway at her job as a recruiter. Being on Brooke’s team doesn’t mean you are fighting for her, it means that she is fighting for you.

She is tougher and stronger than you and me. But knowing Brooke Bailey makes you stronger.