A moment for courage
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 10, 2013 1:50 AM
4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt pins the Purple Heart medal on Senior Airman Justin Beasley during his Purple Heart presentation at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base on Friday. Beasley was injured on June 23 in Afghanistan as his team came under attack by insurgents while investigating a roadside bomb.
Senior Airman Justin Beasley's Purple Heart.
Senior Airman Justin Beasley
They knew they had to avoid this particular stretch -- that a desert road peppered with craters and lined with broken down Soviet tanks was no place for an American convoy.
But when Senior Airman Justin Beasley and his team took to a field to avoid the danger they were certain was lurking down a desolate thoroughfare in Afghanistan's Ghanzi province, they had no idea that enemy forces were a step ahead of them -- that as they traveled down "a safer route" back to their area of responsibility, a blast would send their vehicle skyward.
"It blew us up and then we went back down into the hole," Beasley said. "I thought at first that we got hit by an RPG. Everything just gets shook. All the lights go out. There's dust flying."
Four years earlier, Beasley was looking for a way out of taking the SATs.
He was at a crossroad -- searching for his place in a world outside of academia.
So he contacted a military recruiter and took a test that revealed dozens of jobs fitting for a young man with his knowledge.
"Every recruiter from every branch was calling me," he said.
But one particular conversation piqued his interest.
"The Air Force guy called me one day," Beasley said. "He said, 'You qualify for a unique job. You qualify for EOD.' So I said, 'OK. What's EOD?'"
He would soon learn that EOD, or Explosive Ordnance Disposal, was a career field that involved the pursuit -- and neutralization -- of devices "designed to kill you."
"It sounds crazy, but I was like, 'That sounds cool,'" Beasley said.
And the $15,000 signing bonus -- and the fact that he could leave Wilmington within four months of raising his hand -- seemed too good to pass up.
"After that, I went down to Lackland (Air Force Base) and went though Basic Training," he said.
The EOD preliminary course -- a brief introduction to one of the military's most dangerous jobs designed to weed out the inept -- would follow.
It only lasted a week, but the impact it had on that young man remains with him still.
But it wasn't the information that left a mark on Beasley.
It was the man who disseminated it.
"You can see that he walks weird and there are rumors, obviously, but he doesn't tell you (why) ... the whole time you're going through that course," Beasley said. "Then, at the end of the week, he tells you his story."
The airman was working the scene of an IED find during a deployment when the officer he was with stepped on an explosive.
"He was standing right there beside (the blast)," Beasley said, before explaining that it cost the man the majority of one of his legs. "I don't think the captain made it.
"Right then, it really hit home. This guy -- this is what it's all about."
At that moment, Beasley could have "tapped out."
The Air Force -- and his classmates -- would not have looked down on him.
"EOD is one of the few career fields ... where it's completely optional. At any time, I could go to (my commanding officer) and say, 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" Beasley said.
But hearing his instructor's story compelled him to stay in -- to be one of the men who reduced the odds, for others, of ever having to encounter an IED.
"For anyone to say they're not scared, they're lying," the airman said. "But I think courage is the ability to overcome that fear.
"When we're going down to an IED or when you're getting into firefights ... you're scared, but you have to have the ability to overcome that fear and do what you've got to do. That's when the muscle memory -- all your training -- kicks in."
Their vehicle lying sideways in the hole created by the IED that had, moments earlier, sent them skyward, Beasley climbs down inside it to check on his comrades.
And once he determines that everyone is OK, his team leader begins sweeping the area for secondary devices.
"A few minutes later, we start taking fire," Beasley said. "It was definitely set up. They knew they hit us, because they could hear it, and then they started shooting at us."
Twenty minutes later, the bullets stopped flying.
But when Beasley exposed himself to check on one of the members of his unit, he nearly paid the ultimate price.
"A burst came in and I'm out in the open," he said.
So he ran for cover behind the truck.
"I can see the dust kicking up (behind my) feet," Beasley said.
He ended up avoiding the bullets.
But when, long after that exchange of fire, he was checked out by a medic, it became clear that he had not, in fact, walked away from the incident unscathed.
"They ask you like, 'Say the months backwards,'" Beasley said. "I was saying, 'Christmas.'"
And when he got back to the base his team had been operating out of and failed the "test" again, he was ordered to endure 24 hours of bed rest.
"I wake up the next morning and I have a headache -- weirdest headache I've ever had," he said. "It was like in the front -- very low."
And his ears were ringing, prompting his commanding officer to confine him to a dark room for another two days.
But Beasley, accompanied only by his thoughts, never reflected on just how close he came to becoming another casualty of the war in Afghanistan.
The blast and the bullets never crossed his mind.
"I was completely upset that I was put down for ... 72 hours because we had to pull in another EOD team to take over our area of responsibility. How I look at it, we endangered another team. They had to work in our area that we had been working for four months -- an area that we know," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Hey, I'm not injured. I just have a headache.'"
And even though he was cleared, after his second stint on bed rest, to return to action -- and completed the remaining two months of his tour -- the severity of the injury he sustained when his vehicle ran over that IED revealed itself when he returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Beasley, doctors discovered, had suffered a traumatic brain injury -- one that resulted in the loss of both his short-term memory and 50 percent of the hearing in his left ear.
"But other than that, I'm OK," he quipped. "It's really not that bad."
An Air Force colonel extends the nation's oldest military decoration to Beasley on his 23rd birthday.
She tells those who converged on the Seymour Johnson theater for the airman's Purple Heart ceremony that the young man is a hero -- that he represents something powerful that can be found in every man and woman who wears their nation's uniform.
But the medal 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt pinned on his chest is a decoration he never wanted -- one he still doesn't.
"I don't want all this. I don't want to say I don't deserve it, but when I came into the military it was like, 'There are two medals you don't want, the POW medal and the Purple Heart,'" Beasley said. "To be awarded it, I'm just at a loss for words."
But if receiving it gives him more opportunities to highlight the EOD mission -- to remind the public that there are still men and women putting themselves in harm's way in the name of freedom -- he will wear it proudly.
"I said to (Col. Leavitt), the biggest thing I want, if you can do it for me ma'am, is to put out there that we are still over there fighting. I think that's something that gets overlooked a lot," Beasley said. "These are our sons and daughters over there and they're still getting killed."
And they will continue to volunteer themselves for missions that might lead to their demise for the same reasons the airman is going back to Afghanistan in January, he said.
They believe in the cause.
And they are bound to the family they became members of the day they put on the patch of the unit with which they now serve.
"There is absolutely one thing that motivates me more than anything," Beasley said. "We have two -- a 20-year-old and a 22-year-old -- that haven't deployed yet. I have the ability to stay in and teach them what to do and help give them the ability to save lives. That's what motivates me to get up every day and come to work.
"I wouldn't think twice about (laying down my life for them)," he said. "That's what (being in an Air Force EOD unit) is all about."