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Commentary: Mean, Green, Fighting Machine

By Spc. Brianna Kearney, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment


Over a year ago, at age 17, I was shipped off from my little hometown in Connecticut to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Many Americans don’t go through the sweat and tears that it takes to become a soldier and even fewer choose to take the misunderstood path that I followed through Basic Training. I enlisted into the Army National Guard as a vegan, and was committed to staying as close as possible to my diet during training.

I had already been vegan for a little over a year prior to enlisting. This was due to my views on animal rights as well as upholding my idea of a healthy body. I did, however, want to prove that I could maintain my vegan diet throughout the majority of my Basic Combat Training experience.

After my 7-month experience in the Recruit Sustainment Program, I knew I was a very special case. On the very first day of BCT, I immediately became somebody to watch. This made me stand out, which many people explicitly advised me against doing. However, I was taken aback when my platoon peered at me with confusion when my drill sergeant asked, “Is anyone a vegetarian?”

During the Red-Phase week, we were pushed mentally and physically to our limits. Each time that I dropped for push ups my palms were scraped and imprinted by the rock-studded sidewalk in front of our barracks. These “smoke sessions” were so long that I became appreciative when we happened to be on a smoothly-paved street or a forgiving-dirt area instead of in front of the barracks.

Each time that happened, I could feel people looking at me as if they were expecting me to fail. At 5-foot-2, I was not only the shortest person in my platoon, but also slimmer than most of the females. They expected me to be weak. I constantly caught them watching in anticipation for the moment I would drop to my knees. Showing any weakness would prove that I couldn’t keep up with the demands of my drill sergeant.


But their prejudice fueled my desire to be better than any stereotype imposed on me. I refused to be weak. I was going to set the example.

Our first ruck march was 2 miles, leading us up to the notorious gas chamber. They asked for volunteers to go in first before they filed us in by squad sequence. My hand shot up before my mind processed what I had agreed to do.

As we made our way to the entrance, I noticed that I was the only female volunteer in the group. I squeezed my fists until my knuckles turned white, trying to deny myself the realization that I would be stepping into a chamber filled with tear gas.

Before stepping in, the drill sergeants came over and tried to intimidate us yelling, “I hope y’all drank your milk this morning, privates! You’re gonna have to stomach it in there, privates.” I smirked in sarcasm under the confinement of my gas mask knowing that milk was not in my diet.

Side by side, my battle buddies and I were now choking on the same gas. In that chaotic moment was when I had established to myself and others that I was strong. Keeping our eyes shut tight, we were told to grip the shoulder of the soldier in front of us and run out of the dark and foggy chamber together.


The fresh air and sunlight were a blessing to the chemical mayhem we had faced. As we were walking around trying to regain our senses, I felt the watchful eyes of my platoon members on me again. But it wasn’t with the look of hopelessness like before.

As the weeks went on, the training got easier. I began to wake up each morning with hope that I would outlast my strength from the day before, and I waited for the voice in my head that would push me to be better than the day before. My platoon found me incredibly determined, not backing down from a challenge while strategically eating only the foods I thought was good enough for my body. I was officially deemed “the vegan” when we had field food, which was brought from the chow hall in trucks.

Under the hot Missouri sun, the drill sergeants would start filing us by platoon into line so that we could get chow. The field food was prepared and prepackaged at the chow hall in aluminum trays. This was advantageous for people who ate meat because it meant they could get larger portions. For me, it meant that I didn’t have an alternative source of protein like the chow halls that served peanut butter and beans at the salad bar.

I always said, “No meat, thank you” as I moved down the serving line. I received a look of confusion from those who looked at my sad tray: 2 scoops of vegetables, salad, an apple, a fig newton and a carton of milk. I didn’t drink the milk, but the other soldiers would trade their fruit or vegetables for it.

I sat quietly with the platoon while my drill sergeant came up to me saying, “Kearney, ain’t you gonna eat more?” I replied, “I don’t eat meat, drill sergeant. I can’t eat anything more than this.”

The sun beat down on my head as I scarfed the food down quickly, but it did little to quiet my hunger since I had eaten so few calories. I began to tell my mind, “This is just another obstacle and I will get through it.” Then I felt a tap on the shoulder. To my surprise, my squad had collected their apples and given them all to me in the hopes that I would have more to eat.

I had seven extra apples!

My eyes widened in shock over the generosity of my battle buddies who felt the need to help me when I could not help myself. After thanking each of them, they laughed as I wolfed down all seven red apples within the last five minutes of allotted chow time.

My legacy as ‘Vegan Girl’ was born and I was proud of the title.

During my basic training experience, the sum of my entirety was tested. I overcame the voice in my head that told me I couldn’t, and I surprised myself with how much I changed over the course of 11 weeks. My battle buddies from all over the world now saw me as somebody that beat the stereotypical odds. Because of my outstanding performance, my drill sergeant sent me to the soldier of the Cycle board. Even though I didn’t win, I had proven that I am strong, to not only those around me, but most importantly to myself.