“Hey dude. Do you still have your Class A’s all squared away? You know as a retiree, you’re supposed to keep a uniform ready…” “Do I look like someone that keeps a uniform squared away?” “Lol. You know I’m getting pinned next month. I’d be honored if you’d be there. I think it would be cool if you wore you’re A’s for it.” “Branden, you’re the closest friend I’ve ever had in my life. I’ll be there. But if you think I’m shaving and wearing a uniform, you’re outside of your mind.”
Branden Embry and I met in December of 2002, when I reported for duty at Delta Company 2-7 CAV, 1CD at Fort Hood, Texas. The rest of the unit was at training at Fort Irwin National Training Center in California. Branden was a Squad Leader that was in Rear Detachment because his son from his first wife was due to be born at any time. Because of that, he got to claim me in his squad. He claimed me, so he says, because I had a good PT score. During our time in Rear D, myself and a few other new soldiers did the crap you see in movies. All the dumb stuff like trash pickup, stripping and buffing floors a few times a day, and any activity that sucked and passed the day by in one fell swoop. Whenever possible, Branden would take us cherries and teach us the fundamentals of infantry troop movement. We came to know the book these fundamentals came from as FM 7-8.
When the unit came back from training, I met my company, platoon, and squad. When I was in the infantry, you didn’t want to be a cherry in an infantry squad. There is a beatdown for every “first”. First field problem, first squad formation, first anything. It’s a great way to really get to know your squad…. For some reason, Branden thought it would be a good idea to make me the automatic rifleman; which consisted of using either my 249 SAW or 240B. Let’s just say I got good a foot marches real quick. We’re talkin the heaviest combat load for infantry soldiers. The only time I liked the 27.6 lb 240B was when I was shooting it. Any other time, I wanted my 16.41 lb SAW.
I looked up to Branden a whole lot. He was a fast tracking young Sergeant that you could just tell was the kinda dude you should try to learn from. So I did. No one in my military career had more of an impact on molding me than him. It helped that we became friends really fast, which is not really supposed to happen between a squad leader and one of his joes. But I never treated him any different in uniform so it was no big deal to fraternize. He invited me to football parties and stuff at his house because he knew I had no family there. By no time, we had become best friends. I had learned a lot from him and he was now a Staff Sergeant, as I went from PFC to Specialist.
In February of 2004, our unit, now Charlie Company, deployed to Iraq. We were all ready, but obviously our buttholes were puckered. We had no idea what to expect between training, stories from vets, and movies. We had some interesting experiences, and had a lot of I owe you moments. At times we could even see some beauty in the midst of it all, which was usually short-lived.
I mean can we get a fan up in here?
We relieved stress and passed the free time we had by playing video games, watching bootleg movies, and lifting weights.
Here’s the “tough guy” on a cold night in Iraq….
When his Aunt Skeeter (who raised him for over 7 years) died while we were deployed, I tried to be there for him as much as I could. I had no idea how he would return the favor… There are hundreds of stories and I‘d never be able to express them all. All of us guys shared experiences over there that connected us in a way that we’ll never have with anyone else.
Shortly before we came back home, I was promoted to Sergeant. When we got back, we went buck wild. We spent all of our spare time hanging out. We decided to move into an apartment together as well. I went to PLDC, which is just a leadership course you go to when you become a non-commissioned officer. When I finished that, Branden’s worst nightmare came true. I was taken out of his squad and became a squad leader myself. He’ll deny it, but that was the worst day of his military career ha ha.
Around that time, Branden met his amazing wife Krystal. I actually got her number for him. You’re welcome Branden…. They hit it off and eventually moved in their own apartment together. Even though we weren’t roommates anymore, and didn’t spend as much time together, we were still best bros. We called each other by each other’s first name in uniform and didn’t really care. You’re not really supposed to do that…. Branden was my only friend that actually tried to get me to stop drinking like I used to. We got in arguments, but that’s a true friend.
The day in 2006 when I got in the wreck that took my arm, Branden was the first one there. A Chaplain didn’t call my family, Branden did. He visited me at the hospital in Texas every day. I know he would’ve visited me each day during work regardless of whether he’d been permitted to or not, but our leadership gave him free rein. I had an awesome unit and many soldiers skipped work to visit me, including some of the big dogs you get nervous around. I was in a state of indescribable depression and shock and he was there for me.
I went to Walter Reed when I was stable enough to fly. During that time, he visited me two times. Krystal even came one of the times. That’s two more times than some of my biological family visited me. Don’t get me wrong, a good number of family members visited me a lot. And immediate family basically lived with me for the first 6 or 7 months. Below is when he and my old Platoon Sergeant (and friend) Michael Cochran flew all the way from Texas to pin me Staff Sergeant.
I know there were times that Lisa confided in him about issues she was forced to deal with from me with the war and my arm. He was always there for her. He and Krystal, along with their son Jace, came and visited us at our home in VA for a week after I medically retired (that hurts to say) from the Army. In the picture below, Lisa and Krystal were pregnant. There’s a few other things going on here. The random kid I’m holding is my sister Shannon’s son Rylan Cole, I look pregnant because I thought the husband was supposed to eat the same as the pregnant wife, and I’m not looking at the camera because I’m fixated on the gaggle of carp around us.
He visited us again after Lisa had Emerson Jolene. Even though I just wrote an essay, I feel like it was pointless. I will never be able to describe the crap we’ve gone through together. So when he asked for me to be there, I got a ticket. But this wasn’t just another promotion for the now Sergeant First Class infantry soldier. He had received his Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in Healthcare Management from Dallas Baptist University and was going what we call green to gold. This means he was getting commissioned and would be a Second Lieutenant. Huge deal for him, as it should be. He would become a 2LT in the medical field.
He picked me up from the airport in Dallas and we picked up right where we left off; arguing every third sentence. Anyone that knows me knows that I am always right. It’s a curse. But Branden thinks he’s always right, so I spend a lot of time having to educate him. When we got to the hotel, it was like a family reunion. I saw his sisters, his friends, and our friends that I hadn’t seen in 7 years. It was great catching up with everybody. I got to see Jace again and even got to meet their second son, Alex. Here’s Alex and me keepin it real.
The next day, we all headed over to the auditorium where the ceremony would be held. Branden’s family was proud. It’s ceremonial to have your choice of person(s) to pin you. Branden chose Krystal and his old Platoon Leader Daniel Ebarb. Daniel was a 2LT with our platoon that came after I was sent to Walter Reed. Shortly after, during a firefight in Iraq, he was shot in the neck. As a result, was paralyzed from the chest down. He still continues to show his patriotism by working with the government.
I must say it was bitter sweet being around all the military personnel. The ceremony went well and Branden didn’t trip or anything. Here’s the guys swearing in.
After that we left and all headed to Rudy’s, a sweet bbq chain. Now there’s a joke us enlisted NCOs have about 2LTs. The phrase is ”which way is north?” It is a joke implying that they don’t know what they’re doing since they’re new. Branden is really good at land navigation, but he got lost (with vehicle navigation) trying to find the restaurant. Daniel Ebarb was following us. At one of the u-turn stop lights, I received one of the funniest texts I’ve ever gotten. “He’s been a 2Lt for 15 minutes and he’s already lost.” Nothing could have made me happier than reading that text to Branden. Rudy’s was a real American kinda place.
And there’s one thing I love about Texas: they understand the importance of Dr Pepper and Diet Dr Pepper.
The rest of the day we just hung out. Branden, Krystal, another couple, and myself went out the evening to a sweet restaurant best red snapper etouffee. Yes that’s right; Krystal was the fifth wheel. Afterwards, we went to a really cool place called Reunion Tower. This thing is 561 feet in the air and rotates around its core at the top. All I could think about was how fast Lisa would have passed out from the height- without even going in the building. Dark picture, but you can see it’s way up there.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and I headed home. I can’t tell y’all how proud I am of this accomplishment Branden has made in spite of the tough upbringing he had. I would have never thought he could convince someone to give him a degree- with honors at that! Good stuff dude.