Uncommon Desire: How becoming a Navy SEAL prepared Brandon Myers for the fight of his life

Story by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Paul Coover

Photos by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Timothy Heaps

When Brandon Myers enters his garage gym in Imperial Beach, California, he does so as a man who’s spent his entire life as an athlete. He draws up a simple progression of exercises for a circuit workout, then repositions equipment so he can easily move between stations. He wastes no time with superfluous warm-up routines. Instead he starts his timer, grips the pullup bar and begins knocking out reps.

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Lt.J.g. Brandon Myers at his home in Imperial Beach, California.

 

Myers weighs somewhere around 170 pounds, with a muscular torso and core, and the casual-but-alert posture of the military man he was and in many ways will always be. At peak fitness, Myers weighed around 190, courtesy of strength workouts that often lasted upwards of four hours. Today he’s shooting for 30 minutes.

Since the accident, every pullup, every weight lifted, is an act of defiance. The doctor who told him he’d never walk again? Myers just figures the guy has never worked with a Navy SEAL before.

Myers prides himself a patriot. It’s apparent when he speaks about his decision to serve in the Navy, and it’s apparent even when he’s silent, finishing a set of overhead presses: his shoes, shorts and even socks all feature American stars and stripes.

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Portrait of Lt.j.g. Brandon Myers at his home in Imperial Beach, California Jan 31, 2017.

Walking again is a long shot, Myers knows, and serving once more in the military a longer shot still. The accident was brutal. Those stories of guys who get hurt, but don’t realize until later how bad their injuries are? This was different. Myers knew pretty much right away. After the fall, some of his first words were, “I can’t feel my legs.”

 

He’s a product of Pittsburgh, the son of a steelworker, and of course it fits: the blue collar work ethic, the drive. He played football and baseball in high school, and then in college at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. Plenty of SEALs trace the genesis of their decision to serve back to lessons learned in sports, but Myers’ decision came from even more fundamental origins.

In college, he decided he had no interest in pursuing professional sports, and instead wanted a job that reflected the values he’d learned growing up.

“I started thinking about my plans for after I graduated,” he says, “and serving, and giving back to the country that had given me a quality education and the freedoms a lot of people take for granted.”

But he didn’t come from a military family, and in fact didn’t even know anyone in the Navy who could help him navigate the administrative requirements to become an officer. It took him about a year just to get to the front door of Officer Candidate School — a year he spent working construction to make ends meet. Getting into the Navy was probably the most difficult part for him, he says. Once he got through the door, he could control his own destiny.

After Officer Candidate School, which felt little more than a formality to a man preparing to enter the world of special operations, Myers moved on to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, more commonly and infamously known as BUD/S. With an attrition rate hovering somewhere around 70 percent, the difficulty of the curriculum speaks for itself. Yet it was there Myers thrived.

“I loved it every day,” he says. “Every single day I was there, I would just think and smile, because I was just honored to be on those grounds where so many warriors had gone before me to train.”

Even when the training forced him to confront the very limits of what his body could handle, like it did in the SEALs’ notorious Hell Week, when Myers wondered if he would be able to continue without causing himself serious injury, he never thought about quitting.

“This was my dream,” he says. “This was completely where my heart and soul were invested.”

After Hell Week, SEAL candidates move on to more technical training, practicing covert diving, weapons skills, small unit tactics and other capabilities required to join the world’s elite maritime special operations force.

One of Myers’ best friends, now a lieutenant at SEAL Team 7, remembers the way Myers attacked training after Hell Week even more than the way he endured the trials of the SEALs’ most rigorous physical tests. When other men would ease up, feeling that perhaps they’d already accomplished what they’d set out to prove physically, Myers was relentless. He approached each challenge, no matter how seemingly insignificant, with the same determination he’d displayed on the very first day of training.

Throughout, Myers was also showing himself to be a mature and respected officer.

“What I liked about him most,” his friend says, “was that he was never afraid to speak his mind. Whenever he did speak up, he was 100 percent right.”

Though BUD/S relies heavily on peer evaluations, which can make or break a career in the SEAL Teams, Myers kept up his blunt honesty. He was regarded so highly by the class that even when Myers would call attention to efforts he perceived to be less than perfect — a challenge that could engender resentment on any team, let alone amongst a group of highly-competitive, soon-to-be-SEALs — his words were taken more as a lesson than as criticism or arrogance.

“It’s a gift that only he had,” the lieutenant says. “He was a natural leader.”

Finishing training and pinning on his SEAL Trident wasn’t a surprise to Myers, but it was significant.

“It might as well have been a thousand pounds,” Myers says of the gold insignia SEALs wear on their dress uniforms, “because I felt the weight of the brotherhood.”

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Lt.j.g. Brandon Myers works out from his home in Imperial Beach, California Jan. 31, 2017.

After training, new SEALs are assigned to specific Teams, which are in various stages of training or deployments. Myers was assigned to SEAL Team 7, which had recently returned from a deployment. With the bulk of the Team’s next work-up yet to begin, Myers set about doing the only thing he could do: becoming the best-prepared junior SEAL officer he could be. He resumed a grueling individual schedule that included all of the weightlifting and high-intensity workouts that had allowed him to be so successful in BUD/S. On his rest days, he liked to run the SEALs’ obstacle course — a series of walls, nets and other awkward barriers that test combat-style athleticism — to stay sharp.

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Naval Special Warfare Center’s  ‘O’ course at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California

He remembers something feeling off before he started running the obstacle course on the day of the accident. Nothing specific, just a sense. Myers hadn’t planned on running the course at lunch, but the same classmate he’d become close with in training wanted to get in a workout in the middle of the day to break things up. Of course, Myers agreed.

Myers had completed the course dozens of times before. But something about the way one of the cargo nets was hanging that day was unfamiliar. While descending, Myers’ foot became momentarily tangled, his hand grabbed for purchase and instead found air, and he was plummeting to the sand below. He fell past his friend, who instantly realized the speed and angle of the fall could be serious. That’s when Myers told him he couldn’t feel his legs.

The friend called for help, while Myers lay on the ground, alone, for roughly 10 minutes. Myers remembers trying to use sand to brace his own neck, calling on some of the basic medical knowledge he’d learned in training to protect his spine. He focused on staying calm, though his breathing was labored. By the time the ambulance arrived, the medic wondered aloud at how his heart rate could possibly be so steady.

Once at the hospital, the memories become less clear. Doctors drained a lung that was quickly filling with blood, then sedated Myers. He remembers seeing his SEAL brothers when he woke up. He still gets emotional thinking about the way they showed up so quickly, and stayed by his side.

After a couple days of treatment and surgeries, a doctor walked into Myers’ hospital room and told him he’d never walk again.

That’s when Myers’ calm disappeared.

He told the doctor to get out of his room. “You don’t get to decide that,” he remembers thinking.

By the time the sedatives wore off and a nurse came in to ask if he needed anything, Myers had an answer: a squat rack, because he fully intends to use his legs again — and to make them as strong as they once were. Stronger, even.

There are no guarantees. And there are no current cures for spinal injuries like the one Myers sustained. All he can do is continue to get stronger, and hope for a medical breakthrough.

Myers is still figuring out what’s next. He’s considering graduate school, and possibly a return to work in the Department of Defense as a civilian. He is getting more comfortable in his wheelchair, though he’s quick to note that he sees the chair as a temporary tool. He follows research on the spine and nervous system as closely as he can, given his lack of formal medical training. He’s already learning the vocabulary needed to converse with doctors who specialize in cutting-edge treatments.

About a year after his injury, SEAL Team 7 held a small ceremony in Myers’ honor. He is now medically retired from the Navy, but will never be separated from the SEAL Teams and the men he calls his brothers.

“I can’t help but feel undeserving of everyone’s presence here,” Myers told the Team.

“Brandon Myers!” someone called out from the back.

“Hooyah, Brandon Myers!” a chorus of his brothers yelled.

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With the clock ticking down on his workout, Myers has hit a rhythm. He moves steadily between pullups, dumbbell presses and a ski ergometer, which mimics the upper body mechanics of cross-country skiing. He finishes one set, then another, and another. With each passing minute, the effort required to continue increases. So he leans into the workout, inching up the intensity until the full 30 minutes has passed. Myers has always been willing to grit his teeth and move forward.

“He’s not unique,” says the commanding officer of SEAL Team 7. “He fits the mold of every frogman. In the face of adversity, he just continues to push.”

Brandon Myers’ first words after his fall were, “I can’t feel my legs.” But his second words were, “I’m going to finish this [obstacle] course.”

He plans on keeping the promise.

 

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