Story by Senior Airman Joseph A. Pagán Jr., 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE —On May 21, 2014, Senior Airman TJ Brantley, 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, deployed from here and assigned to the 466th EOD Flight, operating location bravo, air assaulted into the mountains of Kandahar Providence, in support of US Army forces and Afghan Border Police.
While in the mountains, Brantley’s life was challenged during an arduous 10-hour mission, and as a result of his actions, he will now be featured in this year’s Portraits in Courage, an Air Force-level program that highlights the bravest Airmen in our service
“I was about two months into my deployment when an Army unit came to the forward operating base we were at to perform an area of operation clearance,” said Brantley. “They were bouncing around and picking different high value areas, different targets, trying to get intel to see where the improvised explosive devices were coming from.”
Brantley and his team members went into their first mission, tasked with clearing a cave system suspected of housing IEDs, ammunition and supply caches for insurgent forces.
“At about 4 a.m. we were dropped off by a Chinook and began a two-mile hike up the side of the mountain,” said Brantley. “We waited till daylight to descend into the cave and call out to [suspected terrorists]. That’s when the first firefight started.”
After 45 minutes and bullets narrowly missing Brantley, all team members were able to make their way to the surface unharmed and continued the mission.
“We continued to climb the mountain, entered the cave a second time and found 200 pounds of explosives,” continued Brantley. “While my team leader was taking care of the explosives, we got word from headquarters that the enemy was starting to gain on us.”
The enemy was fast approaching, but the team still needed to finish its mission.
“As we entered another entrance to the cave, our Afghan Border Patrol was fired upon,” said Brantley.
They missed their target and once again, insurgents continued to respond with accurate machine gun fire from the cave opening. Brantley quickly returned fire and pulled a Soldier out of the line of fire to a position of cover. During this engagement, the Army lieutenant leading the element sustained a gunshot wound to the leg, instantly shattering bone.
Insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and threw a 20-pound IED that detonated within three meters of Brantley, throwing him back and causing him to hit his head, resulting in a severe concussion. After assessing injuries while still under fire, Brantley provided combat care to the lieutenant, carried him to a new cover position and assisted the medic with additional first aid by packing the wound with combat gauze. During a last-minute close air support engagement, Brantley laid on top of the wounded lieutenant, shielding him from additional injury.
“I didn’t really have a choice while we were taking fire so I put the lieutenant down and hugged him,” said Brantley. “I put my back between him and the bullets, and just laid there until the bullets stopped hitting around us before moving to better cover.”
“This was my first firefight; I didn’t know what to think,” continued Brantley. “I just got in the mindset of fight or flight. I’ll be the first to admit I was scared. There were bullets, it is not a video game anymore, but luckily my body turned the fear into adrenaline.”
When asked about being recognized in Portraits in Courage, Brantley recalled how short life can be.
“I think about it and what I had to do,” said Brantley. “I realized the stuff I take for granted, the people you have at home; they’re more important than I thought about. It made me cherish every day and it’s an honor… and humbling. A couple inches and it could have been a different story. There would have been a funeral ceremony instead of being in Portraits in Courage.”
I’m grateful for the people I have around me, he continued.
“My wife knows how passionate I am about EOD,” said Brantley. “There are probably times she wishes I would’ve been a banker, but she’s proud of me and for me.”
With the support at home and the recognition from his peers, Brantley is the epitome of what the Air Force core values represent.
“He’s an exceptional professional in the performance of his duties as an EOD journeyman,” said Senior Master Sgt. Steven Coppock, EOD superintendent. “His dedication to learning and executing every facet of the job, from unexploded ordnance and IEDs to combat tactics and casualty care, places him on the right path to becoming a successful team leader within the EOD community.”
For his courageous action, Airman Brantley has been submitted for the Bronze Star Medal with Valor. He was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal and the Purple Heart.