Andrew Brazell believes little boys want to do one of three things when they grow up:
• Go to space
• Be a cowboy
• Go to war
Brazell wanted to go to war.
“Who doesn’t want to go to war?” he asked.
But his mom wanted him to go to college.
Her son’s education is important to Linda Johnson, Brazell’s mom, who is in the South Carolina National Guard. And military is in the family.
Her father had an appointment to West Point but he couldn’t afford the uniform, so he had to join the active Army, she said. She also wanted the full college experience for her son.
“I see the soldiers doing the online classes, and to me that’s not the college experience,” she said.
So Brazell enlisted in the Guard like his mom and enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s engineering program.
He was a student at USC for just one semester, but he tried to switch to active duty. One day he received a phone call asking whether he was interested in deploying with a reserve unit to Iraq.
His chance to go to war had arrived.
“I said ‘hell yeah.’”
Brazell transferred from a full-time student to a full-time soldier. His unit landed in Kuwait, and the weather felt like someone had the oven preheating at 400 degrees, he said.
“It was hot, hot, hot, I’m talking about hot,” Brazell said.
And the sand is different — finer than the sand from the South Carolina beaches he was used to.
“Kuwait sand gets everywhere,” he said.
Shortly after, his unit flew into Iraq and began hunting improvised explosive devices. In a year, his platoon found 125 IEDs. And 20 more went off.
He went on about 200 missions to search for the explosives; a typical mission started with a 2 a.m. alarm and ended roughly 24 hours later. Patrols would start a few hours after waking and last about five hours. Then they would go back to the main base for a catnap, fuel and lunch. Then they would go back out on night patrol and return around 2 a.m.
When the soldiers found an IED, a robot would place a charge on the bomb and blow it up.
During the patrols, Brazell sat in the gunner hatch of the Humvee manning the gun and keeping watch for enemies. It was uneventful at times.
Months later, when he was back in America, he walked out of a movie theater while he was watching “The Hurt Locker” because it was too over the top.
“Good God, all that happened to one team? Bull----, I call,” he said.
When his patrol found and destroyed IEDs, he felt relief that they had prevented someone from being blown up. It was difficult when he heard one go off behind him that they had missed.
“I felt like a failure,” Brazell said.
But Iraq had its positives. No one from his unit was killed, and he met his best friend, Kasey Hudson. They had experienced war together. They knew each other so well they wouldn’t have to complete sentences or thoughts and still understood what the other was saying. They were battle buddies overseas and became drinking buddies and roommates when they returned home.
The next time Brazell fought in war, he wasn’t as lucky.
The Walmart test
Coming home was more difficult than war itself, Brazell said.
A big-box store tests whether a soldier has readjusted, said Brazell’s mother, Johnson, who works with many soldiers who have deployed. She has deployed several times herself.
The superstore is a toughie for a soldier who has been overseas, she said — the crying babies, the huge crowd.
“You’re back home if you can handle Walmart,” she said.
Overseas, IEDs became whimsical. They would discover explosives, clear them and keep going. They didn’t think about it.
Adjusting to civilian life was the challenge.
“I just hunted IEDs for a year,” Brazell said. “What do I do for myself?”
He attempted to go to the Veteran Affairs hospital but compared himself to other veterans there.
“I didn’t go through the hells of North Korea or World War II or Vietnam,” Brazell said.
He felt guilty for feeling bad.
He went back to USC but did not do well in the large classes. He wasn’t ready for the academic environment. He was passing his classes with As, Bs and Cs, but he would sit anxiously in class and tap his desk. He took a lot of smoke breaks.
“I couldn’t cope,” he said.
So he transferred to Midlands Technical College where the classes were smaller, and he could be near other veterans. The adjustment became easier, and he completed his associate’s degree.
But he wasn’t done fighting.
A second deployment
Got one, might as well do two.
That’s what soldiers say about deployments, Brazell said.
So he headed back overseas, this time to Afghanistan where he would get his fill of war.
He was still responsible for route clearance, except it was mostly on foot and up mountains. He also interacted with Afghans, which made the mission more personal and emotional.
Old Afghans are “bada--,” Brazell said. They had, after all, driven Russians out of their country.
Afghanistan was as cold as Kuwait was hot, and his battle experiences were far more bitter.
The physical exertion of climbing the mountains and wading through snow caused the soldiers to sweat so much they smelled like “straight cat p(ee).”
He dropped from 178 pounds to 165 and earned the nickname “Bobble Head” because his head stayed the same size when his body shrank.
The weather was so cold that at one point, he had on all of his cold-weather gear – long johns, his uniform, his jacket – but he pulled out his sleeping bag and bundled up. A biting wind had sent the temperatures down to -5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Brazell remembers one of the first missions in Afghanistan. It was the worst one. A group was clearing a path for the vehicles behind them. They had made it up part of a mountain when they heard an explosion behind them.
They reversed their vehicle back to the chaos. A vehicle behind them had hit an IED. Two of his fellow soldiers were killed.
Brazell went over the same IED. It could have killed him.
Sometimes, it’s not necessarily what happened in war. It is the what-ifs that are the toughest to handle, he said.
The loss of a soldier is more than the loss of an acquaintance. Some of the guys in his unit had gone to high school together. They dated each other’s sisters.
Brazell was proud of how everyone carried on with the mission. That was Day One. There were three more weeks left.
By the time his deployment ended, 10 soldiers in his platoon earned Purple Hearts for injuries like burns and traumatic brain injury.
“Afghanistan filled my desire for combat,” Brazell said. “I’m good now.”
A Gamecock once again
Brazell is back at USC working on his bachelor’s degree, this time in economics. Not because he wants a desk job, but because he’s good at it. The class sizes no longer bother him.
The administrative support system is better than it had been after Iraq. Now there are PowerPoints on not committing suicide, counseling and even financial advice for soldiers returning home.
Although he has more life experience than a lot of 26-year-olds, Brazell still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up.
He’s pretty big into civil service and might be a firefighter one day.
For now he plays with his new border collie puppy, studies hard and goes to class.
Going to college provides a normal feeling of being a civilian again, he said.
“Maybe college is that degree back to reality,” Brazell said.