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PROGRESS 2024: Veteran Spotlight – Cody Bragwell

These days Cody Bragwell, 33, is a pipefitter with the Russellville Gas Board. He’s the husband of Jennifer and the father of Porter, 13, and Evelyn, 7. Back in mid-2008, his life looked a little different: Fresh out of high school, Russellville class of 2008, Bragwell joined the United States Marines.

“I had an uncle who was in the Marine Corps in the ’80s, and I always looked up to him,” Bragwell explained. “Ever since I was in probably seventh or eighth grade, it was pretty much what I knew I wanted to do.” He said his friends and family were excited for him when he joined up – although his uncle warned him it would be a challenging road, a true life-and-death experience, and his mother was not 100 percent enthused. As a 17-year-old, Bragwell’s parents had to sign for him to enlist. “She knew that she might as well let me sign up at 17 or it would just make me mad, and I would sign up anyway the next year,” Bragwell said.

The Golden Tiger alum turned 18 in June and shipped out to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., in July. Breaking his foot slowed the progression of his military training, landing him in a medical rehabilitation platoon for five weeks. “Sitting five weeks in the medical platoon – that was probably the worst part,” he said. “You’re not going forward, you’re not going backward, you’re just stuck.”

Combat training school at Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, N.C., followed boot camp. Bragwell was destined for even more specialized training to follow. “I scored really high on my ASVAB,” Bragwell explained. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which is administered to all enlisting service members, “figures out whether you’re good mechanically, or if you’d be good with computers, or learning another language,” Bragwell said. The test showed his aptitude for technical training, and Bragwell was assigned to the Center for Information Dominance, Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station, in Pensacola, Fla. After an in-depth background check, Bragwell attained a top secret/sensitive compartmented information clearance and underwent months of training in an SCI Facility.

“When I was getting ready to graduate, they gave me the option to choose my duty station: North Carolina, California or Hawaii,” Bragwell said. A tangential factor made the decision for him: He had just bought a motorcycle, so it was an easy choice to select the west coast to enjoy scenic motorcycle rides during his off-duty time.

Bragwell served in the 1st Radio Battalion at Camp Pendleton in California. Following a machine gun instructors’ course in the School of Infantry, he became a machine gun instructor.

He later served as a turret gunner for his team when they deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. He also put his security training to work as a signal intelligence operator. “I would run the equipment we used for intercepting communications,” Bragwell explained. His team would support light armored reconnaissance battalions in intercepting shipments of drugs and weapons in transport from Pakistan to Afghanistan. They would intercept communications from the enemy and provide information to other military personnel, and analysts and linguists would use the information they intercepted to map out enemy strategies. “It could be fun at times. It was a very small team.”

Bragwell spent seven months in Afghanistan in 2010. He said when they first deployed, “I was kind of scared, not knowing what to expect.”

“You’ve got to have your mind right and know what you’re going into,” he said. “I think always keeping that mindset helped, of just ‘I’m in the middle of war zone. We’re actively trying to kill bad guys, and they’re actively trying to kill us.’ You shouldn’t be surprised when bombs start going off and people starting shooting at you.”

Bragwell deployed to Afghanistan again in 2012, after mountain warfare training in Bridgeport, Calif., during 2011. Based in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, Bragwell and his fellow Marines carried out various operations, including foot patrols and vehicle-mounted operations. Bragwell served as team leader.

One mission was Operation Branding Iron in Zamindawar, during which an incident occurred that particularly stands out in Bragwell’s mind. “We heard an explosion one day and couldn’t figure out what happened. Nobody was reporting anything that had happened,” he said. “About 30 minutes to an hour later, these two people come running up with a wheelbarrow.” Inside were injured children; a translator was able to ascertain that the children had triggered an IED while playing soccer – an IED placed by their parents and intended to target U.S. troops. Bragwell’s team was able to get the children evac’ed to get medical attention – during which time they came under sniper and machine gun fire. Bragwell said he couldn’t help but marvel at the irony, that they were attacked while trying to offer compassionate aid.

On the other hand, Bragwell said he and his fellow Marines encountered plenty of hospitality from many of the locals. They were frequently offered tea and food as gestures of friendship and appreciation.

His 2012 deployment lasted eight months.

Bragwell said the important thing was maintaining a focus on “doing your job well to make sure the other guy stays alive and makes it home.” He said he tried to ignore the political aspects, instead focusing on his own role. The “rules of engagement” sometimes made that overly challenging. “I think Afghanistan could have gone a lot different had the gloves been taken off,” he said. “We were kind of hamstrung … There were all these stipulations that had to be met before you could shoot someone or shoot a car that was loaded down with explosives or take action on whatever the problem was, and that hinders your ability to operate effectively.”

When it was time to return stateside once more, Bragwell said they were warned they might not receive a friendly welcome home. It was true. There were protestors at the gate when their plane landed – but Bragwell didn’t let it bother him. “We were fighting for their right to be able to do that.”

Bragwell spent the rest of his time in the military on domestic soil, working in the Systems Integration Management Office, where he was in charge of equipment. Six months before his term of duty was supposed to end, he achieved his promotion to corporal, but although he had once considered a career in the military, “at that point I pretty well knew it wasn’t a career path for me.”

Bragwell’s service ended May 13, 2013.

“Overall I think it was a very positive experience,” he said. “I grew up a lot … If I had to do it over again, I would. I would do some things differently – maybe take certain things a little more seriously, like I had some opportunities I maybe could have taken but I didn’t. But I guess everything happens a certain way for a reason.”

When it comes to the lessons he learned, Bragwell said he particularly thinks about his experience in dealing with sensitive information. “Not everyone needs to know everything that goes on. There’s a reason we have security clearances, and there are some things the American people don’t need to know about until it’s over with,” Bragwell said. “Loose lips sink ships. You lose the element of surprise and being able to handle a situation when everyone in the media is reporting on it … All it does is give the enemy time to get ready … It puts our troops, our guys in harm’s way, in more danger.”

When Bragwell was ready to return home, his uncle flew out to California, and the two of them rode their motorcycles back to Alabama. The cross-country trip took just less than a week. Riding through a snowstorm in Arizona wasn’t the best part of the trip, but “we had a lot of fun. We did 2,600 miles in six days.”

Bragwell said in the wake of his military service, the challenges facing veterans are often on his mind – veteran homelessness and suicide, especially. He said he would love to see more streamlining of services at the VA, as well as more manpower and more dedicated personnel to run VA operations.

He said he has mixed feelings when someone thanks him for his service. “That’s not what I did it for,” he said. “When someone says thank you, it can be a little awkward. It’s not a bad thing but … I don’t want it to sound ugly, but I didn’t do it just for you.”

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