Brandon enjoyed a quiet upbringing. Years later an IED blast would upend his world, one that he would come to share with a rambunctious cat he met at an animal shelter.
From Oregon to oorah
By all accounts Brandon had a storybook youth. After being adopted as an infant he was raised in a small Oregon town where he became involved in sports and made many wonderful friends.
“I grew up in a very respectful household,” he recalls. “I had that going for me.”
But as Brandon neared high school graduation it was time to leave the nest. He enlisted in the Marines along with his best friend Josh, and the pair even went through boot camp together in San Diego.
“That was the farthest from home I had ever been,” he shares.
The Corps seemed like the perfect place for the young teen, who describes himself as “bull headed” and someone who likes to push boundaries. Brandon was a bit homesick, nonetheless.
“Being away from family was the hardest part of it,” he confides.
However, it was important to Brandon and Josh to strike out on their own, make their own marks on the world.
“We wanted to venture out and do our own thing.”
Brandon’s journey had just begun.
Learning by doing
After boot camp Brandon attended communications school to train as a field radio operator.
Professionals in this specialty are highly versatile. They may be assigned to various units, including artillery, tanks, and engineering. They are expected to fight alongside their fellow Marines if they are assigned to combat units.
After completing ‘comm school’ Brandon was assigned to the 2nd Marines light armored reconnaissance battalion, stationed out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And in short order he was deployed to Iraq.
Brandon was just 18 years old.
“I went over there with what I had just learned in school,” he says. “I was super scared. I didn’t expect to be deployed as soon as we were.”
The young war veteran returned to Camp Lejeune after 10 grueling months in Iraq. But in time he would be called to war once more.
IED blast changes everything
Brandon grew up quickly during that first overseas assignment.
“The first deployment was obviously life changing. Being in a different country and seeing what people are going through.”
When Brandon got called up once again he felt more prepared. He had matured not only as a Marine, but as a man. However just a few months into his deployment to Iraq, Brandon was seriously wounded by an improvised explosive device, or IED.
“I was a radio operator for a logistics convoy and we got hit with an IED,” Brandon explains. “I was a machine gunner at the time and ended up being diagnosed with TBI and PTSD.”
The Veterans Administration estimates that 22 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have traumatic brain injury, or TBI, while up to 20 percent experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in any given year.
“…no longer deployable”
Brandon was pulled off detail as a radio operator and spent the remainder of his deployment on base. A few months later his unit returned to the states where they were subject to post-deployment evaluations.
“I had to go through some treatment for being involved in a road bomb IED,” he said.
It was during this time that the military tested and diagnosed Brandon with TBI and PTSD resulting from the IED attack.
“They determined I was no longer deployable,” he says.
Although Brandon was out of the war, he was not out of the fight. He was assigned to a non-deployable unit with the 2nd Marine division. He served as a radio operator while the process of being medically retired from the Marines was underway.
“We prepped deployable units with working radios and supplies that they needed to deploy,” he explains.
While there, Brandon underwent hazmat training to learn how to handle, neutralize, and destroy hazardous materials. He was the hazmat company’s non-commissioned officer, or NCO, for about a year. It was an assignment that the young Marine enjoyed.
At the end of May 2009 Brandon was medically retired from the Marine Corps. He lingered in North Carolina to enjoy one last summer by the beach before moving to Washington state.
The IED blast may have ended Brandon’s career as a Marine prematurely, but it did not dim his plans for the future. He used his GI Bill benefits to earn an associates degree in criminal justice, after which he spent about six years working in the wine industry.
However in 2017 Brandon decided to put his degree to better use. He is currently working as a corrections officer at a state penitentiary and studying to complete his bachelors degree in criminal justice.
Show me a sign
In 2018 Brandon was thinking about adopting a companion pet, a battle buddy. Initially he wanted a dog, but was concerned that his work schedule would leave him little time for a pup.
“With cats being more independent as they are, I decided to go there,” he shares. “It has been one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life.”
Brandon visited nearby Blue Mountain Humane Society in Walla Walla. Since 2015 the shelter has adopted dozens of pets through our partnership, and offers veterans in our program half-off adoption fees.
The young Marine initially wanted a kitten, but in most cases they are not eligible for the benefits of our program. The staff told him about our mission to place those pets who are most overlooked by adopters.
Brandon would return to the shelter over the coming weeks. In July he met Toby, a then two year-old cat with stunning ebony fur. Toby curled up in Brandon’s lap at their first meet and greet; it was a sign.
“That’s how I knew when he was the one,” Brandon shares. “He’s super laid back, super chill.”
When Brandon finalized the adoption he learned that a Good Samaritan paid the adoption fee and covered Toby’s vaccinations. Yet another sign that he and Toby were meant to be.
Brandon continues to cope with the invisible wounds of the IED blast he survived in Iraq. But the young veteran knows a few things about perseverance and was ready to help his new bestie adapt to their new life together.
And challenges – there have been a few.
For starters, Brandon had to acclimate Toby to being an indoors-only cat – mostly for his own safety from coyotes and other outdoor dangers. Then there is Toby’s need to shred things in the house when Brandon is not at home.
“When I leave for work every night I have to close his door to his bedroom,” Brandon explains. “That way he is not roaming around destroying stuff.”
But it is the little cat’s big personality that makes him a wonderful, if not occasionally problematic, battle buddy.
“He’s like a teenage kid that says ‘you can’t tell me what to do,’” Brandon says, adding that Toby likes to eat plants as well.
Toby is now a full-fledged adult cat with a playful and rebellious spirit. He is a vocal chirper and a big personality. Brandon likens him to an “opinionated teenager,” but loves that his adopted cat has so much attitude.
Two souls saved
It is true that Brandon’s initial instinct was to adopt a dog. But the Iraq war veteran realized that a cat could equally satisfy his need for an enduring friend.
“It doesn’t matter how long I’m gone, he’s super happy to see me.”
Toby’s unconditional and relentless joy buoys Brandon’s spirits when he needs it most. The Marine Corps veteran commutes two hours round trip each day for work. His job requires tremendous fortitude. And he still copes with the aftermaths of the IED blast in Iraq.
“I have my good nights, I have my bad nights.”
The retired Marine encourages other veterans to consider adopting a companion pet, noting that their affection for their guardians never wavers. And while Toby is not the pet he originally thought to adopt, the feisty black cat is this veteran’s perfect match.
“He is my uncertified service friend, he turns every bad night of work into an amazing day,” Brandon shares. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity, it’s been a blessing.”