July 15, 2013
Sgt. Mark Brown is a shotgun-owning, hockey-playing, truck-driving mechanic.
By day, you can find the Iraq veteran fixing vehicles on Fort Carson and listening to his favorite bands: Megadeth, Five Finger Death Punch and Slipknot.
Retreat with him to his barracks room at the end of the duty day, though, and you'll glimpse his softer side - 50 My Little Pony figurines on his computer desk, and a stuffed pink pony on his dresser.
His message to those who might give him trouble: "I fight for my freedom. I think I have a right to like what I want."
Brown's a "Brony" - one of a handful at Fort Carson.
He's one of thousands of adult males who like "My Little Pony," a cartoon launched by toymaker Hasbro in 2010 to promote its resurrected line of pastel-colored pony figurines popular with little girls in the '80s and '90s.
The past couple of years have been lucky ones for Bronies, a combination of "bro" and "ponies." Since 2011, the number of conventions celebrating Bronyhood - and the fan art, costumes and friendships that accompany it - has grown from single to double digits.
The subculture has quickly gone mainstream. My Little Pony merchandise is no longer relegated to the toy aisles of department stores. Pony figurines, pony trucker hats and even pony swim trunks are now sold at shopping mall-staple Hot Topic, home to pop culture-inspired clothing for young adults.
But Brony culture, considered by some to be effeminate and creepy, has yet to gain wide acceptance in the testosterone-dominated culture of the U.S. military.
A Facebook page devoted to Bronies in uniform has garnered just over 8,000 likes, while a Facebook page devoted to all Bronies boasts closer to 80,000.
In the military, Brown has encountered some who are "cool" with his Brony status.
Others, he said, "want to beat the crap out of you for it."
A handful of military Bronies inhabit Colorado Springs and its military installations. But it's hard to keep an accurate count due to the nature of their profession, says Spc. Jesus Nieves, a Fort Carson mortarman and Brony.
"There were, like, nine total on Fort Carson alone as recent as a couple of months ago," said Nieves, 20. "One had a huge Rainbow Dash (pony) sticker on the back of his car, and another has stickers all over his plates and little figurines in his pocket.
"But people get busy with work, transferred, deployed."
It's a tough pill for a neophyte Brony-in-arms to swallow. Nieves has been in the Army for two years, but he discovered his love for the tiny ponies a mere eight months ago.
After stumbling on an episode of the show on YouTube one night, he found himself equal parts amused and confused.
"At first I was like, 'What is this? Why are there ponies on here? This is really weird,'" he said. "Then I was like, 'But it's not bad.' I started watching more and more, and I realized the story lines are really good. The characters are really well done. The animation is really well done."
Nieves thought he was the only grown man to like the show. He decided to seek out other fans his age, figuring they'd be female.
Much to his relief, a quick Google search introduced him to the term "Brony" and pointed him to ColoradoBronies.org, an online forum with boards where Bronies from around the state can connect.
There were other pony fans of the male persuasion living locally, he discovered.
Better yet, some were in the military.
One was even in his unit.
One day Nieves was looking at a picture of someone wearing a My Little Pony T-shirt on his phone.
Anthony Sanchez, a cavalry scout, noticed.
"I was like, 'That's a cool pony shirt,' and then I walked away," recalled Sanchez, who declined to provide his rank. "Nieves chased me down and said, 'Hey, wait, what? You know about this stuff?'"
"I didn't think I'd find somebody in my own work environment who liked the show," Nieves said with a chuckle.
Nieves began to hang out other military Bronies once a month, sometimes bringing Sanchez with him. The men would play laser tag, go bowling or grab lunch together on post.
The group recently fizzled due to lack of attendance. But for a while, at least, Nieves enjoyed the camaraderie that his fellow military Bronies provided.
"Civilian Bronies are nice - all Bronies, I've noticed, are really good, decent people," he said. "But civilian Bronies just don't have the mentality that military Bronies have. We all do the same things like go out into the field. We know how chow is, so we talk about how bad it is. It's easier to connect."
There will be no military Brony camaraderie for Nieves and Sanchez - at least not beyond what they provide each other with.
Not for a while.
The duo, along with other soldiers in their unit, recently deployed. The Bronies wouldn't say where they were headed. It's not to Equestria, the place where the fictional ponies live.
Nieves left his lone My Little Pony toy - a figurine of Derpy, a gray pony with a blond mane and a patch of bubbles on its hindquarters - back in the states.
Instead, the he and Sanchez plan to keep their love for ponies alive - and their spirits lifted - by watching episodes of "My Little Pony" on YouTube.
"It's just something to keep the tone down when it's been a rough day," Sanchez said. "When you're deployed, you don't really know where you are, what's going to happen next. It's nice to have some continuity in your life."
The men have seen the show lift the spirits of stateside soldiers, too. A mutual friend became depressed and suicidal after losing a buddy in Afghanistan, they said - until he started watching "My Little Pony."
"He said it really helped him out," Nieves said. "It's a fun, family friendly show, and it made him feel at ease."
"It's a nice little ray of sunshine," Sanchez added.