From soldier to student: The sacrifice

On the third day of Justin Brown’s combat deployment to Afghanistan, an Afghan National Army insurgent killed one of Brown’s comrades during a training exercise at a shooting range. While Brown never opened fire during the attack, the situation made a lasting impact on his life. 

Emily Blobaum and Jack Macdonald

Editor’s note: “From soldier to student: The sacrifice” is part one of a three-part series detailing the military and college experience of Division 3 Cyclone hockey player Justin Brown, who is also a criminal justice studies major at Iowa State.

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

He’s carrying his M4-carbine assault rifle to the shooting range, alongside other members of his platoon and a small unit of the Afghan National Army, ANA. It’s just another day.

He places himself on the far right side in between several other U.S. soldiers.

After a few minutes of shooting at the targets, the soldiers set their weapons down in front of them. They aren’t to be touched until further commands. It’s a practice that the Army preaches.

Suddenly, shots fire.

Brown, who is sitting 50 meters parallel from the rebel, can’t clearly see what has happened. The power from the gunshots have kicked up the dry Afghan dirt, creating a cloud of dust. But he realizes that something has gone horribly wrong.

An ANA insurgent on the mid-left side of the shooting range has opened fire on one of Brown’s comrades.

The rebel is dead. But so is Brown’s comrade, a man whom he had shared lunch and light-hearted conversation with just a couple days earlier.

It’s only day three of the 19-year-old’s deployment with the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade out of Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Afghanistan.


Brown’s decision to enlist in the Army wasn’t an overnight decision, but rather a culmination of the past 19 years finally catching up to him, specifically his close-knit relationship with his father, Tracy Brown.

Tracy left college and was shipped off to Afghanistan for his lone combat tour, 29 years prior to when his son enlisted.

Tracy knows what it’s like to put your life on the line for your country. He also knows exactly what his son went through in the Zabul Province, because 10 years earlier, Tracy was standing on the exact same soil.  

“[Justin] and I have a connection that most others don’t have,” Tracy said. “He and I have chewed the same dirt. By that I mean we were both soldiers and in the same combat zone. We’ve both seen life through a same-colored lens that other father/sons will never have.”

But there was only so much Tracy could prepare Brown with before he embarked on his own nine-month tour that would change his life forever.


It’s September 2013. Brown is boarding a plane that will fly from Fort Knox, Kentucky, to RC South, Zabul Province, Afghanistan.

Thoughts of not returning home are tucked away in the back of his mind. For now, he’s focused on the opportunity he’s been given.

Twelve hours later he’s arrived at the Kandahar Airfield. Within 24 hours, the reality that he’ll be in a war zone for the next nine months has set in.


Brown never dreamed of enlisting in the military. As a young kid, he would watch high school games and dream of playing in the National Hockey League. 

“I think growing up, I definitely had the military in the back of my mind,” Brown said. “I never thought I would be in the military; I had my eye on just playing hockey.”

After graduating from high school in 2012, Brown decided to forego college and test the waters of junior hockey.

Brown’s first stop of his junior hockey career brought him to Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, a small town in the northern part of the state. Brown laced his skates for the Minnesota Iron Rangers of the Superior International Junior Hockey League, a Junior A level team.

But Brown couldn’t crack a roster.

“I was a suitcase,” he said.

After only playing 11 games, Brown decided it was time for him to move and try to develop his play somewhere else. From Hoyt Lakes, he went on to play only a few games for the Alexandria Blizzard and the Twin City Steel of the North American Tier III Hockey League.  

He decided that his childhood dreams of going pro weren’t going to come true. He turned to the U.S. Army, trading his hockey skates for a pair of military boots.

“I think hockey growing up, it’s every kid’s dream to play in the NHL,” Brown said. “I knew maybe God had different plans for me, and that was it.”

Brown arrived at Fort Benning in Georgia. He was dubbed a SAW Gunner and spent the next 16 weeks preparing for a journey that would change his life forever.

“I knew there was a time to grow up so I enlisted in the Army,” Brown said. “It wasn’t really a dream, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sniper, I wanted to deploy. It just kind of fell into place for me.”


Several months into his deployment, thoughts of being killed enter Brown’s mind as he enters his 17th hour of work. He’s been patrolling the villages in the Zabul Province since sunrise.

And his day isn’t over.

His platoon has to reach a checkpoint before it can consider its second day of a three-day mission complete.

He’s been given orders to set up in a single file line, as they are entering an area that likely is a minefield.

Brown’s exhausted. In addition to the 60 pounds of body armor and items in his rucksack, he’s been carrying 40 pounds worth of guns and ammunition.

He’s worried about stepping on an improvised explosive device, IED. But he pushes on.

“It’s just a thought, thoughts you can set aside,” Brown said.

He’s focused on the bigger picture: protecting those next to him, and protecting the country that granted him the opportunity to be here.


After his tour in Afghanistan, Brown’s brigade was shut down due to the downsizing of the military. He was then sent to Bravo Company 121 with the 25 Infantry Division in Hawaii for his new mission: sniper school.

For the next two and a half years Brown learned to shoot with different weapon systems and continued to train on target detection, wind and distance formulas.

In his free time, Brown would go to the rink to get shots in. He realized that he missed the sport that he had put on hold to defend his country.

He knew combat deployments were slowing down. He wanted to play again.

“I wanted myself to experience what it’s like to be a student and go to a university and not have any other obligation except for being a student and playing hockey.”

He verbally committed to play for Cyclone Hockey at Iowa State while he was in Hawaii. He was excited to be given the opportunity to let his true passion — hockey — flourish again.

Brown, already a changed man, was expecting to have a smooth transition into civilian life. But that all changed Aug. 2, 2016 — the day his best friend died.

Editor’s note: The Daily originally stated that Brown attended basic training in Fort Knox, when he actually attended basic training at Fort Benning. The article has been modified. The Daily regrets this error.