Army’s lessons now guide woman in motherhoodJune 18, 2018
By LEANN BURKE
FERDINAND — Nikki (Brinkman) Perry, 38, will never forget the first meal she ate at basic training in 2001.
She’d traveled all day from Louisville to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, marched into the hall in the rain and was served a frozen Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich with frozen milk.
“We didn’t’ get to heat it up,” she said. “People were rubbing the biscuits in their hands.”
That was only the tip of the iceberg that Perry describes as “hell” and a “culture shock.” Perry had never been outside Dubois County, she’d never been on a plane until she took off for basic training, and she’d never been away from home longer than a few days at a friend’s house. Now she found herself sleep-deprived and running 5 miles at 3 a.m. She still remembers calling her mom, Pat Hedinger, two weeks into basic — the first time she was allowed to call home — and telling her mom through tears that she was going to come home.
“I said, ‘I’m going to sneak out the gates. Can you come pick me up?’” Perry said. “She told me to stop crying, you’re not a baby.”
Perry stuck it out, and now she’s grateful for the experience. Joining the Army helped give her life direction and the discipline she needed later in life as a single mother of four.
Perry joined the military about five months before 9/11 as a 21-year-old with no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She’d worked a couple jobs, but nothing she wanted to stay at. Then, she decided, somewhat on a whim, to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the military. Her father, Kenny Brinkman, died when Perry was 5, but she remembers hearing people talk about knowing him in the service and what a good man he’d been.
The week she decided to join the Army, her father had been on her mind a lot. Finally, she went to the recruitment office that used to be by Big Lots in Jasper and signed up. She told her mom she signed up, but Hedinger didn’t believe her until the officer from the recruiting center showed up in their driveway.
“I’ll never forget it,” Perry said. “We were sitting on her porch and (the officer) pulled up and got out of the car. She said, ‘Oh, you were serious.’”
After basic training, Perry trained to be a Romeo 31, someone in charge of constructing and maintaining the communication systems that kept everyone on base connected. From there, she was stationed in Arizona for about nine months before she got the call that her unit was deploying. She still remembers where she was: in a car with some friends on their way to New Mexico. She got the call first. When she hung up, she told her friends, and they all thought she was joking. Then, their phones rang, too.
“That’s when it got real,” Perry said. “It was like this isn’t just running every day and training. We’re really going overseas.”
Three weeks later, Perry was on a darkened plane — window shades down, no lights — with her weapon in hand, landing in Kuwait. Perry describes the desert base as hot, stinky and dirty. The entire time she was there, she said, she never felt clean no matter how many showers she took.
“You could go like this,” she said, wiping her face, “and it was just dust and grit everywhere.”
Perry was in Kuwait for two months and threw up every day. Finally, her sergeant told her to go to the clinic. That’s when she found out she was nine weeks pregnant. Turns out that when the rest of the women in her unit were taking pregnancy tests before deploying, Perry was getting a second pair of hot weather boots. No one ever told her to get a pregnancy test done, she said. Now, not even a third of the way through what was supposed to be a nine-month deployment, Perry found herself on a plane heading back to the states.
“I did feel bad when I left,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m leaving (the others in her unit) behind.’”
Her friends understood, though, and sent her back to the states with money and lists of requests for items to ship back to them. The most memorable request came from her sergeant. He gave her $100 and told her to send him as much Spam as that $100 would buy.
She spent the rest of her service in Arizona working in the battalion office answering phones and pushing papers. She gave birth to her first child, Brianna, five days after then-boyfriend James returned from deployment.
After the couple got out of the Army in 2004, they married and moved to Dubois County and worked at Styline, and Perry gave birth to their second child, Stephen. Then James got a defense contracting job. All the time apart took its toll on the relationship, and the two separated. Perry now works at The Hampton Inn in Jasper and is a single mother to her four kids, Brianna, 14, Stephen, 12, Kaelyn, 10, and Jase, 3. They live in Ferdinand. Her boyfriend, Eric Arvin, lives in Huntingburg.
Perry recalls her time in the service with a smile, happily sharing stories of the lifelong friends she made and the challenges she faced. The best stories she has come from basic training. She recalls going in the gas chamber where drill sergeants made them remove their gas masks and answer questions. Somewhere, there’s VHS video of highlights from bootcamp with footage of her and her “battle buddies” running out of the chamber with long strings of snot hanging from their noses.
Another story features the Cheerio Bandit. During basic, one of the girls took single-serve Cheerios from the mess hall and hid them in the barrack’s ceiling tiles. She refused to admit she’d stolen them when the drill sergeants found them, so the whole unit was punished. They had to stand outside in the rain with their arms in a T for three hours and clean “well used” port-a-potties. To this day, Perry will not use a port-a-potty.
“I have seen some stuff,” she jokes.
Nearly 15 years after her time in the Army, Perry’s kids are quick to remind her that she’s not as tough as she used to be. Playing tag in the yard of their Ferdinand home, Perry gets out of breath.
“Mom you were in the Army,” they taunt. “Why are you out of breath?”
“I’m not 21 anymore,” she tells them.
But she’s just as proud of her service now as she was then. Not everyone can say they served their country. For Perry, it’s a badge of honor.
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