When James Brannen was a 17-year-old junior at Foothill High School in Bakersfield, CA, no one really expected him to attend college. That, however, was before he spent five life-changing years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Those years would set him on a new course that would not only take him to college, but eventually, law school as well.
"School wasn't my thing," Brannen said, "and I knew there would be no college for me after high school." With that in mind, he became a Marine upon graduating in 1999.
The War on Terror Calls
After basic training, Brannen spent a year in Japan, then returned to California just before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He'd already been trained as a radio technician, now he would begin learning the role of tank ammunition loader as well.
While he continued to train and awaited his orders, Brannen and his high school sweetheart, Aimee, married. They started a family with their first son, Dylan, in Twentynine Palms.
"One day, when it was just Dylan and me, I got the call," Brannen said. With the baby on his hip, Brannen lined up and learned that his 1st Tank Battalion would be deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He would be among the first to make the push to Baghdad.
A Haunting Twist of Fate
A twist of fate would save Brannen's life as his battalion prepared to convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad. Instead of his regular spot in a tank near the front of the convoy, he was moved back to the communications Humvee.
The long convoy was overtaken by a heavy sandstorm as it inched along the road to Baghdad. They finally arrived...minus Brannen's original tank. "No one even knew it was missing until we arrived in Baghdad," he said. The tank had gone off a bridge, landing upside down in the Euphrates River. All four crew members drowned in the tank. "I have lots of memories, he said, but that one is with me all the time."
A New Life Awaits
When Brannen's six month tour of duty ended, he was welcomed back to Twentynine Palms with a special surprise. Stepping off the bus, he was greeted with: "Sgt. Brannen, your wife is in the hospital having the baby!" He'd made it just it back just in time for the birth of his second son, Dain.
A monumental and fitting welcome for this Marine who had a whole new life of possibilities awaiting him. As a Marine, Brannen's view of the world, and his own potential, had been transformed. "I found myself reading books I'd been assigned in school...books I hadn't read. I realized I actually wanted to continue my education, to really learn something," he said. And he did.
Brannen eventually attended California State University, Bakersfield. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and was recognized as Outstanding Graduate in Philosophy. He didn't stop there, and he earned his juris doctorate from U.C. Davis in 2011. Today, Brannen serves as deputy counsel for the County of Kern and he credits the USMC for helping him get on track to a rewarding career.
This article was originally published in Bakersfield Life Magazine, February 2016.