LAKEWOOD RANCH — Having grown up in Manatee County, Ashley Brown always knew she lived in paradise, but the reality of it sank in deeper last year when she stepped off a plane and breathed in the humid air and the beauty of lush vegetation.
“It was incredible,” said Brown, who had just spent seven months as a U.S. Marine in Iraq. “It was like you could see (every color, every detail). I didn’t think I could appreciate nature any more, but I did after that.”
After retiring from her military duties in April, Brown now has planted roots at Mariposa Nursery on Lorraine Road, where she has been working for the last few months.
“I thought I knew a lot about plants, and then I came out here,” said Brown, who always has harbored a love of plants and nature. “This is my real passion.”
Brown didn’t want to go to college right after completing high school. But as she saw her friends begin to lose themselves to drugs, Brown knew she had to get away.
“I wanted to do something,” she said, noting she’d first considered joining the U.S. Coast Guard. “My dad was a Marine. It was the toughest boot camp, and I wanted to do the toughest one.”
At just 5-foot-4 and 100 pounds, Brown set off, hoping to get a glimpse of combat in Iraq.
“That’s what I really wanted to do,” Brown said. “I’ve never been out of the country before, and the first time I did, it was in a Third World country at war. I had fun over there. The camaraderie (is great). You have to make it fun.”
She graduated from boot camp on her 20th birthday and headed to Marine combat training and then into training for her role in Iraq. She left for the Middle East in January 2009.
As a female, Brown’s options for her occupation in the Marines were limited. But Brown made the most of it, choosing to work in Motor T, learning to drive military vehicles such as HMMVs and MRAPs.
“It was the closest I could get to combat,” she said. “I didn’t want a desk job. We train and train and train and train. I wanted to do something (with it).”
Brown’s platoon was responsible for transporting equipment from base to base as the U.S. military prepared to pull out of Iraq.
“I went when things were calmed down, but it was still dangerous,” Brown said. “The people before me did a lot more than I did.”
Brown’s convoy got hit a few times — once by an IED and a few times by armor-piercing Russian hand grenades. Although Brown’s vehicle was never hit directly, the sound alone was terrifying. The sound of deep bass, even now, sometimes makes her jump, she said.
“There’s nothing like the sound of that,” she said. “It was insane.”
Still, Brown is quick to dismiss any mention of the word “hero.” Her months in Iraq, although still dangerous, were safer because of the soldiers who went before her. Their sacrifices, she said, are the ones to be praised.
Brown completed her tour in August 2009. The whole experience, she said, taught her discipline and perseverance.
“You don’t know how far you can push yourself,” she said. “You can push yourself way harder than you think you can. You can push your body and your mind.
“I missed it (here) so much,” she said. “We really live in paradise. I don’t think anybody really knows until they leave and come back. I love home.”
Brown, who is working a full-time schedule, uses her off time to see friends, enjoy the beach or go fishing.
One day, she said, she’d love to have her own plant and gift shop.
Contact Pam Eubanks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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