From soldier to student: The breaking point

Sam Oden, Justin Brown’s best friend, was killed August 2, 2016 after being hit by a semi. Brown wears a bracelet every day in his honor. 

Jack Macdonald and Emily Blobaum

Editor’s note: “From soldier to student: The breaking point” is part two 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 wears the date Aug. 2, 2016, on his right wrist — a physical remembrance of the day his best friend died.

It’s 9:30 a.m., Brown’s friend Anthony Walsh is calling. He, among several others, has been trying to reach him all night.

Brown answers the phone. Walsh asks if he’s heard about Sam Oden, Brown’s best friend. Brown, having just woken up, is confused. He hangs up, and sees the dozens of missed calls and text messages from Oden’s friends and family. He realizes that something terrible has happened.

Brown immediately calls Oden’s mother. Oden’s aunt picks up.

“What’s going on?” Brown asks.

“It’s true, Sam’s dead,” she says.

Seven hours earlier, Oden was reportedly walking on Interstate 494, a busy interstate in South St. Paul, Minnesota. He was 19 miles away from his home in Edina, Minnesota.

At approximately 2:22 a.m., Oden was struck and killed by a semi truck.


Brown is confused. Why was this happening? Hadn’t he had his fair share of coping with death while he was in Afghanistan?

He’s supposed to be preparing to come to Iowa State to play hockey. Instead, he’s speaking at the funeral of his best friend.

It’s hard to believe that today we are gathered here to celebrate Sam’s life. The day you left us I remember walking into your room, and the first thing I saw was a sign. It read, “Jesus replied, “you don’t realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”- John 13:7.

It almost didn’t feel real, but as if you were talking to me, letting me know you made it up there safe.

But today, I am lost.

Brown recalls the first day he met Oden. It was on the ice.

“I just remember he had gotten into a fight at this showcase and [the other guy] was bigger,” Brown said. “Something about that, you want to help him, so I stepped in and helped him.”

From that moment on, they became best friends.

“Things just clicked on all four cylinders for us, just how it naturally happened, it fell into place,” Brown said.

The two spent hours lifting weights, playing hockey and eating Chipotle. Anything they could get their hands on, they were doing it together.

Sam, you are my best friend, a brother. I only knew you a few short years, but it felt like a lifetime. God put you in my life for a reason, and for that I am forever grateful and blessed. I know now, that you are resting with the Angels in a much better place.

Thank you for all the great memories and laughs, your impact on my life has truly made me a better person. You will be remembered for your funny sense of humor, big heart, smile and athletic ability to push yourself beyond reproach.


Four months before Oden’s death, Brown was serving in a sniper section in Hawaii.

With the war coming to a close, combat deployments were slowing down. Brown wanted to explore opportunities within civilian life. His mind went straight to returning to his childhood passion: hockey.

“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,” Brown said.

He researched different schools and their hockey programs.

He knew he wanted to be close to home, as he had spent thousands of miles away from his family and friends for the last three years.

He ultimately chose to attend Iowa State, where he enrolled as a sophomore in criminal justice and to play for Cyclone Hockey.

Prior to his time spent serving in the U.S. Army, he played junior hockey, but didn’t find any luck.

He bounced around to different teams, yet couldn’t crack a roster. He had needed an opportunity to grow up.

“I was stuck in just being a little kid. That phase coming out of high school, you don’t have any real things to do in life,” Brown said.

He enlisted in the Army in 2013, where he was shipped off to Afghanistan as a SAW gunner. After nine months, he was re-assigned to Scholfield Barracks, Hawaii, where he would spend two-and-a-half years serving in a sniper section.

Serving in Afghanistan and Hawaii gave Brown the chance to mature into what he considered a man.

“[Growing up for me was] being able to show myself that I can take care of myself and do the things that I did without anyone’s help,” Brown said. “I think the things I’ve experienced kind of separate myself than somebody who just goes to college because that stuff grows on you.”

He had lived through the death of a comrade, spent thousands of hours carrying 100-pounds worth of gear and walked hundreds of miles in extreme temperatures. He was ready to return home to his friends and experience life as a civilian again.

He wasn’t prepared, however, to cope with the death of Oden.


Every time Brown steps onto the ice, he thinks of Oden.

“I think of the player he is, and the character that he brought to his teams. I try to play to the best of my ability to honor his life and know that it was important,” Brown said.

He uses his military background to serve as a leader for his team.

“I think overall I just try to be somebody other players look up to,” he said.

Brown found new friendships in Joey DeLuca, a forward on the D3 team and Griffin Mason, a former forward on the D1 team.

Mason and Brown’s friendship would prove to be vital in the coming months of his freshman year. It was easy, as they were able to bond over hockey, just like Brown and Oden had.

“I met Justin through hockey at the beginning of the year and we kind of just clicked right away,” Mason said. “We’re kind of the same type of person, so I could tell that he’s one of those guys that really cares about his friends and that’s kind of how I am too.”

DeLuca realized Brown’s leadership role at the beginning of the season.

“You can definitely tell he’s been a more mature figure for the rookies and serving four years in the military, you definitely get a sense for a team and what it means to put yourself before the team.”

Brown had nearly everything he could’ve asked for. He had new friends, a team that gave him a second chance at playing the sport he loved.

“To wear the Cyclone Hockey jersey, it’s an honor. It’s a huge blessing to be able to come home from the things I’ve experienced and be able to play hockey because I know for many, you dream of playing in the NHL but for now it’s just about playing and essentially just keep working hard and honor those who can’t play the game anymore.”

Brown wanted a smooth transition. But the death of his best friend would ultimately lead him to one of the darkest nights of his life.