MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
At nearly twice their ages and half their sizes, Lt. Col. Melanie Friedman stands out among those wearing the same uniform.
The deputy director of intelligence at the Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education ties her laces together just like the rest of them, and then fiddles with the bunny ears on her helmet.
With her bunny ears set just right, Friedman, known to her teammates and competitors as "BustHer Bunny," joins the rest of the Capitol City Rollin' Rebels team in a huddle to go over their strategy against the Mobile Derby Darlings roller derby squad.
The huddle breaks with a team chant, and the Albuquerque, N.M., native covers her bunny ears with an elastic cap that has stars on each side.
The announcer explains that the cap is worn by two people from each team.
"And the ones you see with the stars on their heads are the jammers," said the announcer. "They're going to be the ones scoring the points by making laps as they get through the opposing team's pack of blockers. The jammers' blockers will try to help them get through as they make their way through the opposing pack."
The whistle blows and the first round of the flat track roller derby bout begins.
As a utility player, the 48-year-old colonel starts at the back of the pack in the jammer position. Friedman presses her skates to the ground and launches into a wall of blockers who are trying to keep her from passing through. Friedman's 5' 3", medium-build frame sneaks through the teetering wall of bodies trying to knock her down.
She zooms ahead of the pack, with her wheels searching for more grip. BustHer Bunny stays in front for several laps around the track, scoring point after point. Inevitably, she falls behind, needing to pass through the human wall once again.
Suddenly, a clack echoes through the Montgomery, Ala., skating rink; she's been knocked down.
Faster than she fell, the pixie haired Rebel returns to her feet.
The cycle of falls and bounce-backs repeats itself as it has at other points in the intelligence officer's life. Some falls, like her divorce and a missed promotion, were more difficult to get back up from, she explained.
"Everyone has setbacks, whether it's a death in the family or a job-related issue, but you just have to get back up," said the University of New Mexico political science graduate.
Like in the rink, Friedman didn't sit around waiting for those life events to crush her spirit. She fought for her promotion, and because of that she received high marks for the next go-around. She doesn't look back at the divorce with anger or sadness, but rather as a pathway to where she is now, happily remarried with two children.
"He's very supportive," she said of her husband, Eric. "He even does my make-up for the bouts when he can, and helps with selling merchandise."
A constant smile revealing white teeth, or red, white and blue when wearing her mouth guard, hides the fact that Friedman encountered such obstacles in life.
Day-to-day problems are erased when she steps onto the rink, rolls up to her team and cackles after someone tells a joke.
The physical sport that rewards its players with bruises and scrapes just isn't an angry place for her.
"I feel awesome when I'm skating," she said. "At the end of the day, after pushing papers all day, I get to go out let off steam and just roll."
The patriotic smile, however, doesn't hide her tenacity; to her teammates, it's worn like a skin.
"To be '2-feet tall,' she hits really hard," said a teammate known as "Cyn Diesel," who described Friedman's practices as brutal. "She's super-fast and agile, but aside from all of that, I just really look up to her. She is the oldest skater on the team, and I'm the third oldest, so for me seeing her is like looking six years into the future and seeing that I can still do this."
As a former Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps commander of 120 students at the University of Southern Illinios in Carbondale, Friedman is not a shy teacher, especially when it comes to new skaters, commonly referred to as "fresh meat."
"She's very, very patient," said Ashton Perkins, who is no longer considered fresh meat and now dons the name "L'il Ash Kicker. "I was having problems with crossovers, and she taught me how to do them more effectively, so now I'm stronger as I push through the track," she said "If I ever tell her I can't do something, she'll say, 'No, I don't take that.'"
At the bout, moments before the whistle blew, it was Friedman's turn to block, she was leaning over to teammate "Dame Cobane" to exchange advice. Like the falls and bounce-backs, this behavior of teaching was repeated throughout the two-hour bout.
For Friedman's coworker Lt. Col. Melinda Moreau sitting on the sidelines, Friedman's actions were nothing new.
"She always has time for you and will help you with whatever needs to be taken care of," said Moreau, a cyber operations specialist in the LeMay Center's war gaming section. "The way she plays relates to her attitude and ethic at work. She's a utility player so she can be used anywhere, and that's a diversity of skills. I've seen that diversity from her as the deputy director, and today I got to see it on the rink."
Win, which Friedman's team did by more than 100 points, or lose, Friedman is happy on the rink. She doesn't know how many more years of derby her body can take, she said, but she also hasn't set a limit. Instead, she jokes that she'll keep bouncing back until her 48-year-old knees won't let her.
(U.S. Air Force video by Senior Airman Ineke Honingh)