Ode to a 21-Year-Old Owensboro Soldier Killed Ten Years Ago Today
Hey Mom! It's Brandon. Big day. It's crazy, huh? I'm all grown up. Twenty-one. Living on my own. Going, going away today for a little bit. Don't worry. I'll be back. I'll be home. I'm gonna make it back. - Brandon Scott Mullins 2011
Brandon left this voicemail for his mom in May of 2011, just before being deployed to serve in the Kandahar province in Afghanistan. Brandon had been in the Army for about a year and a half before his deployment to the Middle East. His first deployment, tragically, was his only one. Brandon was killed in a bomb blast on August 25th, 2011, just three months after arriving to serve. Brandon, despite his promise to do so, never made it back.
Ten years later, that voicemail, in which Brandon promised his mom he would return home, remains a wonderful blessing, but painful reminder of what could have and should have been, but isn't. In armed service, there is always uncertainty. However, one thing is assuredly certain. Some promises prove impossible to keep.
Cathy was able to talk with Brandon on August 22nd of 2011, just three days before he was killed. His grandmother, Cathy's mom, had passed and Cathy called to share the news. She, nor he, had any way of knowing that conversation would be their last on "this side of heaven."
While Brandon isn't here physically, there's no doubt he's alive and well every day in the hearts of his parents. Cathy proudly carries Brandon's spirit with her everywhere she goes. Honestly, it radiates from her. I have known Cathy for years and I can tell you that there's a hint of pain in nearly every smile of hers. But, more noticeable than that is a beaming sense of pride- for her country, her family and her son.
I suppose that's the promise mothers make to their children- to be proud of them, carry them and celebrate them. It's certainly the promise to Brandon that Cathy makes good on daily. You likely know, Cathy has made quite a name for herself, and for her family, performing the National Anthem around the country. Every time she sings "The Star-Spangled Banner", she does it to not only honor her own son, but to pay tribute to everyone who has suited up and fought in the name of freedom.
As Cathy recently explained, "That flag really means something. It does cost a lot of love. A lot of blood." And there's no doubt that Cathy and her husband Tommy learned that the hard way.
A few years back, Tommy wrote an incredible tribute song for Brandon, one based on that voicemail Brandon left for Cathy just before embarking on his journey overseas. The song, "21: Ode to a Soldier", eventually inspired a full-length CD by the same name. See, Tommy and Cathy not only have the military in their blood, they've got music in it too and they have found a way to marry the two in a way that's melodic, inspiring and, well, quite frankly, healing.
In tragedy, they have found an even greater sense of purpose and Brandon's story has connected them with families around the U.S. that have experienced that same loss and have paid that same unfathomably expensive price. I assume it would be easy, as a Gold Star parent, to settle for resentment. What I most admire about the Mullins family is that they chose resilience instead.
In June of 2015, they were invited to join fellow Gold Star families for an event with the U.S. Army Golden Knights. Yes, they got to experience the exhilaration of a tandem jump. At that same seminar, Tommy shared the song "21."
It was also there that Cathy was invited to travel to Chicago and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" (at an event alongside actor and activist Gary Sinise). Up until that point, Cathy had never performed the National Anthem solo. The first time she did she stepped to the mic in front of 15,000 people. She put her hand over heart, which is precisely where she was carrying her son. As she sang, her voice soared and so did Brandon.
He's been inspiring his mom to sing the anthem, everywhere, ever since.
It's experiences of the Mullins family and their story that ultimately led to the creation of the Gold Star family monument here in Owensboro. In 2014, they met World War II veteran Woody Williams. That meeting occurred shortly after his family installed the first Gold Star monument in West Virginia. A few years later, that meeting would inspire and lead Owensboro Mayor Tom Watson to unveil a similar monument here.
See, ten years after his passing, Brandon Scott Mullins continues to make his presence and spirit known. His mom continues to sing the National Anthem at events around the country. His dad has had doors opened too and is now a Certified Hunting Instructor for Kentucky Fish and Game. Each student in that program receives a required safety vest. That vest is an official Team Brandon vest.
I asked Cathy to share some of her thoughts about the current situation in Afghanistan. As I mentioned earlier, the easiest emotion to be burdened by is resentment. But, to no one's surprise, that's not the one Cathy and Tommy have chosen at all.
Cathy says, "The news from Afghanistan is heartbreaking. There was so much progress made helping women and children. However, it would never be sustainable without a strong, continued presence there. History has proven time and time again, changing centuries of oppressive governments and cultures cannot be accomplished in the span of just 20 years."
She adds, "I'm heartbroken for Afghanistan. Heartbroken for the war that many of our veterans brought home with injuries, PTSD, and suicides. That war will continue on here at home in the lives of our military."
She should know. Her son and her family paid the ultimate price in that war. Yet, Cathy's heart doesn't just hurt for her own family, it beats and aches for all the other ones too. And while Cathy and Tommy are still so incredibly sad that Brandon's gone, they remain so darn proud of him for standing up for and fighting for that flag. It really does mean something. And it does indeed cost a lot of love and a lot of blood. And while Brandon Scott Mullins paid that price ten years ago, his family's respect and love for him remain.
As Cathy explains, as she sees continues to see her son's legacy carried on through scholarships at Apollo High School and the hockey league here in Owensboro, the Brandon Scott Mullins Memorial Foundation and connections with the National Guard, "He's always here. In our hearts. In our memories. In our kids. In our grandkids."
That, my friends, is most certainly a proper ode to a soldier.