NOVO SELO, Bulgaria –
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class John Proulx crouched behind a massive tank, nervously peering out at the crowd gathered before him.
He looked like he was back home in Montana, trying to sneak up on an animal he was hunting in the wilderness. But this time, at least, Proulx wasn’t sneaking up on an animal. He was sneaking up on his son, U.S. Army Spc. Brayden Denman, Jan. 31 on Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria.
This was a big day for both father and son, because it was the day that Denman would go from the rank of private first class to the rank of specialist. And, unbeknownst to Denman, his father was about to pin the rank on his hat and place the rank on his chest.
It was also special because it was a day in which a father in the Army Reserve and a son in the Active Army, both from the small city of Helena, Montana, deployed to two different European countries a half a world away, were able to be together again for a special moment.
“Of all the things I’ve seen, people I’ve met, this is easily the best experience I could have had over here; I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Proulx said shortly after the promotion.
Proulx is a 1999 Helena High School graduate and a 2013 engineering graduate of Carroll College. He works in Helena for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. He joined the Army in 2000 as an Infantryman and served four years at Fort Lewis-McChord before leaving Active Duty. A year later, he realized he missed the military and joined the Army Reserve, where he has served as a citizen-Soldier since. He is an avid outdoorsman who would rather be in a boat on a lake or river than anywhere else in the world.
His son, meanwhile, attended Capital High School where he was active in sports, playing football and winning the 2017 Montana State powerlifting championships in his weight class. He said he always knew he wanted to join the Army, and his father was a big reason why.
“I’ve always looked up to my dad as a role model,” Denman said. “Just being a presence in my life really influenced me on what I wanted to do with my life. I’m glad I became an Infantryman, I love it, I love doing my job every single day, I’m glad I wake up every single day.”
Now father and son are mobilized to Europe as part of Atlantic Resolve, a series of multinational training events in the European theater. Proulx is serving with the 652nd Regional Support Group, an Army Reserve unit from Helena tasked with providing basic life support and morale services such as lodging, dining facilities, showers, laundry and gym facilities to 11 base camps throughout Poland.
“It’s been rewarding seeing that we are providing a better quality of life for the Soldiers that are mobilized to the forward operating sites in Poland,” Proulx, the future operations section noncommissioned officer in charge said. “If it’s something as simple as replacing a bed, that has a huge impact on the morale of the Soldiers. It’s definitely been a rewarding experience to help Soldiers feel more comfortable when they’re 5,000 miles away from home.”
Meanwhile, Denman is training with his sniper team section as part of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Novo Selo Training Area in Bulgaria. Denman joined the Army right after graduating from Capital, and has served in the Army for about a year and a half, having completed basic training and one station unit training at Fort Benning, Georgia, before moving on to his first duty station with 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. Despite never being to a foreign country before, Denman has relished the time training with his brothers in arms in Bulgaria.
“It’s been awesome,” Denman said enthusiastically. “So far we’ve had a lot of training, got to do a lot of cool stuff, a lot more stuff than I would have expected to do. We’ve been training, met people, a lot of people didn’t expect to meet.”
The father and son tandem actually complete a third generation of Army service for Proulx’s family, as his father also was drafted into the Army in the 1960’s.
Promoting his son in Bulgaria took some coordination between Proulx’s unit in Poland and his son’s unit in Bulgaria. The two had briefly crossed paths at Fort Hood, because the 652nd went there to complete pre-mobilization training before mobilizing to Poland. Originally, Proulx and Denman thought they might both end up being mobilized to Poland for Atlantic Resolve, but Denman’s mission carried him elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Proulx’s commander in the 652nd was extremely supportive of him getting a chance to see his son during his time in theater.
“Col. Herzog was absolutely behind this from the get-go because she understands that we’re over here, and we’ve got a mission to do, but she also understands the importance of family,” Proulx said.
Denman’s unit was also somehow able to keep the promotion a secret until the time when Proulx could travel to Bulgaria and pin on his son’s specialist rank. With the help of Denman’s squad leader and platoon sergeant, Proulx was able to travel to the base the night before the promotion, and literally hide out until the morning of the promotion. They were also able to keep the young Soldier’s inquiries about when he would pin on his new rank at bay for a few days.
Denman was facing his platoon, unaware Proulx was standing behind a tank a few yards away. When “attention to orders” was sounded, Proulx walked briskly from behind the tank to the line of promotes.
Suddenly, his father was standing right in front of Denman. Though he stood at attention, an immediate mixture of shock and confusion was apparent on the young Soldier’s face. After the promotion, his son seemed to still be taking it all in.
“Ahh, there was a lot (of emotions),” Denman said. “It was kind of one of those things where I was shocked, I was surprised, I was happy. I was very confused at first…”
It was also a huge moment for Proulx.
“Which dad wouldn’t want to promote his son?” Proulx said. “The only greater feeling I’ve ever had was when I had a chance to pin his blue cord on his shoulder when he was done with his basic training at Fort Benning.”
The moment was enhanced for both Soldiers because it was shared by Proulx’s wife and Denman’s mother, who had stayed up to watch it all on Facebook Messenger.
“My wife was at home taking care of our kids and taking care of our lives, so it was good that she could finally be included in real time,” Proulx said.
“She wouldn’t have missed it for the world – and I’m glad his little brother got to see it, too. She was really happy we could make it happen. She was more happy I could come down here and hang out with him on this day then actually being there for it so it was just added icing on the cake.”
Even though he is more than 5,000 miles away from Helena, Proulx saw many similarities between Helena, Montana, and both the small town of Powidz, Poland, where he is mobilized, and Novo Selo, Bulgaria, where his son is mobilized.
As he approached Novo Selo Training Area, Proulx looked out the window at a snow-capped mountain in the horizon.
“When we first left Sofia, there was a very large, bald mountain with snow on top and I was looking at the mountain ranges around, and I was like this looks like the mountain ranges in Helena, the mountains in Montana,” he said. “It almost feels like home, really it does.”
He also found similarity between the way people live in Powidz, which is located on a lake, and in Montana.
“Being in Poland is a lot like being in America, except I don’t speak the language and I can’t read the writing,” Proulx said. “The people are kind of the same. On a warm night if I get a chance, I grab my fishing pole and I go down to the lake and I see families out riding bikes and pushing strollers, and it’s humanity – it’s humans being human. It’s not exactly like being at home, but it’s close enough that it makes the difference not that bad.”
Proulx has found a bond with the people he sees fishing on the lake at Powidz and in the fish markets in town. It was a hot topic he spoke about with his son as they sat alone in the dining facility at Novo Selo, while catching up over a sandwich and coffee.
“When we do talk, it’s usually centered around fishing, and then it’s on to shooting, then the Army, then back to his mother and brother and talking normal, and then back to Army talk,” Proulx said.
At the end of the day, it was clear, for Proulx and his son, this day was about family – his family in Helena, Montana, and the brotherhood both he and his son experience serving in the Army.
“The Army’s a big family,” Proulx said. “It’s a family of Soldiers, it’s a family of spouses, it’s a family of children and in this particular case it’s a family of a father and a son.”