From soldier to student: The purpose

Justin Brown, a sophomore in criminal justice, spent three-and-a-half years serving in the United States Army. He spent nine months in Afghanistan as a SAW gunner before moving to Hawaii in 2014 to serve in a sniper section. 

Emily Blobaum and Jack Macdonald

Editor’s note: “From soldier to student: The purpose” is part three of a three-part series detailing the military and college experience of Division III Cyclone hockey player Justin Brown, who is also a criminal justice studies major at Iowa State.

It’s the red, white and blue.

It’s the feeling of skating on a fresh sheet of ice.

It’s losing a best friend.

A comrade.

Justin Brown lives for his friends, family, his country and the ice. They are what he first thinks about each morning.

They are his purpose.

He remembers everything he’s gone through. The unsuccessful junior hockey season that led him to enlist in the U.S. Army. The death of his comrade on the third day of his deployment to Afghanistan. The unexpected death of his best friend, Sam Oden, three months after returning home from serving in Hawaii. And the opportunity he was given to play hockey again, this time as a sophomore in college. 

He tries to forget, however, the night in fall 2016 when he failed to remember all of the positive moments that have shaped him for the better — the night he was admitted into the hospital for three days with suicidal ideations.

“I think some of those [emotions] bottled up inside and how he has dealt with Sam’s death, it’s a constant struggle,” Justin’s father, Tracy Brown, said. “To be emotional in the military is mindfully a weakness, and the two don’t play well together.”


It took 18 years for Brown to find his fire as a soldier in the U.S. Army, specifically serving as a SAW gunner in Afghanistan for a nine-month stint.

He knew he eventually would have to answer the calling to fight for his freedom, as his father served 22 years in the armed forces.

But that isn’t to say that the purpose of being a part of something bigger than oneself doesn’t come at a cheap price.

Brown experienced this firsthand while serving in Afghanistan — patrolling the region daily, often in extreme temperatures.

“Sometimes you get sick of it, but once you’re there, it sets in and you have a purpose to be there and your family can’t really help you,” Brown said. “But then you have the guys next to you who can really support you.”

He remembers his favorite quote: “Service is the rent you pay to live on this earth.”

“My purpose is to serve … I think I don’t just live for me, I live for the people around me,” Brown said. “I want to do as much as I can to help them or make a positive impact on their lives.”


Brown’s transition back into civilian life hasn’t been easy.

And he isn’t alone.

Military-affiliated students make up 5 percent of the student body at Iowa State, with more than 900 students receiving military education benefits last semester, said Jathan Chicoine, director of the Veterans Center at Iowa State.

“When you come from that place where you’ve had that incredible responsibility, that incredible sense of duty, you’re part of something that is larger than yourself,” Chicoine said. “Coming back into [civilian life], that might be sometimes hard to navigate.”

While Brown considers himself a regular student, his background differentiates him.

“I try to contribute in the classroom as much as possible … but also at the same time I try to blend in with the environment and mind my own business and go about my daily routine,” Brown said.

Like other military-affiliated students, Brown isn’t sure what he wants to do. He enjoys the freedom that comes along with being a student but also misses being in a structured environment alongside comrades who share the same passions.

“I think sometimes going from that sense of a collectivistic culture to sometimes what might be an individualistic culture can be very challenging, and I think so many veterans enjoy being able to connect with their brothers and their sisters,” Chicoine said.

Although Brown is eager about returning to the military, he wants to finish what he started. Getting his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice by 2019 is the goal, Brown said.

“If I leave now, or leave next year, it almost feels as like I quit school, and I don’t want to have that feeling,” he said.


As combat deployments began to slow down, the opportunity to return to civilian life and don a cardinal and gold sweater as a Division III Cyclone Hockey player arose.

“My purpose with hockey is just playing again. I didn’t have the best juniors experience, but I grew up playing it my whole life,” Brown said.

He also dreamt of playing in the National Hockey League, but as he grew older and the days in which he could prove himself as a top hockey player in Minnesota dwindled, he found a new purpose on the ice. A purpose that he still lives out to this day for Cyclone Hockey.

After Brown joined the military and was shipped to Afghanistan, then Hawaii, he thought the days of competitive hockey were long gone. And then he got to Ames and rediscovered that purpose he plays hockey with.

 “I think the people that invested in me growing up to play hockey and put in the time to help me become a player and the person that I am, I either owe it to them and even owe it to myself to continue to play.”


Brown has redefined his life with several purposes, but there has been one Bible verse that has stood out more than any other purpose he lives for.

Romans 5:8 – But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

“Romans 5:8 is hard to describe honestly,” Brown said. “It’s something that I guess you try to listen to every day and you try to replay that in your head. You’re loved more than you’ll ever know by someone who died to know you. I can’t put it into words.”

The quote, for several reasons, has kept him sane in the transition and battles with depression.

It describes the relationship he had with Oden, but also puts him at ease. Through this verse, he says, he understands that there’s something bigger after this life.

Justin Brown is 6,966 miles away from home. It’s 11 a.m. and it’s already 90 degrees.

He can’t see himself doing anything else.

After all, Brown’s purpose is to serve.