PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. --
PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. - Some of the strongest bonds are those built through hardship and times of uncertainty. For a friendship like the one shared between sergeants Adilene Sanchez and Brittany Guadalupe, it began on their first day of Low Altitude Air Defense Course (LAADGC) at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA.
They were both told at Marine Combat Training that they would be Aerial Observers /Gunners, also known as “Door Gunners,” an occupational specialty that involves firing thousands of rounds a minute, while perched inside a helicopter.
“We were sitting in the seats of the schoolhouse under the impression that we would be becoming door gunners together, and the instructor came out and told us it wasn’t what we thought,” Guadalupe said.
Luckily for them, they had already faced a level of uncertainty as brand new Marines - they both came into the service as “open contract” recruits, and were assigned a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) that, until late 2015, was not open to women.
A LAAD gunner’s primary mission is to support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force commander by providing low-altitude, surface-to-air weapons fires. They employ the FIM-92 stinger anti-aircraft missile, a 34.5 pound weapon which is man-portable, shoulder-fired, and infra-red heat-seeking. The minimum height requirement to carry the stinger missile is 5 feet, 4 inches - Sanchez’s exact height.
In addition to being able to pass the Marine Corps Physical and Combat Fitness Tests, Marines in the course are required to execute multiple physically exhausting events in order to graduate. This is where the most Marines attrit, Guadalupe said.
After successfully completing the three-month course, the Marines parted ways to their respective duty stations: Sanchez to 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion in Camp Pendleton, CA, and Guadalupe to 2d LAAD on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. The two wouldn’t see each other again for five years, but they maintained a close friendship via social media through multiple deployments.
Both Guadalupe and Sanchez were inspired by Marines they worked with whom had completed successful tours at both recruit depots. Drill instructor duty became a goal for both as they started to look at career options.
“I met a lot of LAAD gunners who had been drill instructors on multiple tours,” Sanchez said. “I worked with a gunnery sergeant who was a drill master and other Marines who helped set me up for success. I came out here with that knowledge and faced my struggles so I was able to help Guadalupe when she came here.”
Soon after Sanchez submitted a volunteer package for drill instructor duty, Guadalupe was motivated to follow suit.
“I think it was social media that kept us together, and we got even closer prepping to go to drill instructor school together,” Guadalupe said. “That motivated me, because we always were tracking on each other.”
Both Marines said they were blessed with solid mentorship and guidance from LAAD Marines while preparing to attend Drill Instructor School at MCRD Parris Island.
“After I came back from the [Unit Deployment Program] in Japan, I was sent to be a Corporal’s Course instructor where I learned skills in public speaking and teaching classes,” Guadalupe said. “It helped me a lot because the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge was a LAAD gunner as well and a prior drill instructor. Because of him I was able to get a lot of the jitters out before coming here, and I still talk to him to this day.”
Using their experience carrying heavy equipment, hiking routinely and managing gear, Guadalupe and Sanchez found that training and mentally preparing for the rigorous course was baked into their ethos as LAAD gunners.
“I was always trying to better myself physically to be able to fill that spot [as a drill instructor],” Guadalupe said. “I think logistically being in LAAD helped me because in both situations we were in charge of so much gear, and now we are in charge of a lot recruits AND their gear.”
Their aspirations of attending the course together didn’t happen, but as luck would have it the two found their way back to each other in the months after their respective graduations. Sanchez’s first cycle as a drill instructor in Echo Company was also Guadalupe’s ‘partial,’ a term used to describe a brand new DI’s indoctrination into training recruits. Although they were separated by different decks, Sanchez said the two were fiercely supportive of each other from the beginning.
“We never butt heads, not even because of the fact that we are both LAAD gunners, but we just get along,” Sanchez said.
Guadalupe completed the five-week Combat Marksmanship Coach course in early September and rejoined her platoon for the Crucible alongside Sanchez. September 24, 2021 was the first graduation the two were side-by-side, just as they had been six years ago as brand new LAAD gunners. As a testimony to the life changes they’ve endured on separate coasts, being drill instructors on the same team solidified their close bond as teammates and close friends.
“Just to have someone that I’ve known and kept in contact with since day one,” Guadalupe said. “It feels like home.”