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Many years ago I received a message from my sister asking if she could have an essay she wrote about me published. If my sister writes something that someone wants to publish, of course I’ll agree to it, but I also wanted to read it, so she sent me a copy of it. I have since republished it a few times, because she writes well and I’m proud of her.

Like any typical American (admit it, we’re more arrogant than the rest of the world) I first read through it with selfish thoughts, the pride that my sister chose to write about me, and called me her hero, and I made sure to save it so I could read through it again. It would turn out to be a few years until I would read it again, only then I would read more deeply into it, with a much greater realization of what she was saying about me.

I think somewhere deep inside I knew everything she brought to light, but it wasn’t until my subsequent readings of her essay I began to process a lot of it, and come to understand not just how I grew up impacted me, but also my siblings. There were some things about the way we grew up I didn’t like, but there were also a lot of good and great things. None of that matters when you’re a kid, you have no frame of reference for any of that, but as you get older and you realize how your friends grew up, you see how people are raising their kids now, you see the lifestyle choices the people you grew up with have made, things start to come into focus.

I think people bring things from their childhood with them. People think back to how they grew up and determine they will not do that with their kids, but they will do this other thing. Regardless, times change, and things get perceived differently as the years go on, just look at the cultural shift on spanking over the last 50 years, or allowing a child to be unsupervised at any time for any duration, and how child rearing perspectives will even be different between different states and cities. I truly believe my parents did the best they could with us. I also believe there are things they wish they could have done differently with me (and maybe all of us), but as the oldest, I’m the trial and error kid. I certainly didn’t make it easier for my parents.

Most churches do something with families when the kid is young, some do infant ‘baptism,’ some do child dedications. Regardless of your theological viewpoints, in general (though not always), I believe the overall intent is the same: to call the church body to help the family raise them up as a child of God, to be there when support is needed, to be good examples of Christ and how we should live our lives. Looking back, I can see I grew up in a church that supported families. It was usually more in the way of stepping up for things like Sunday School and VBS, but sometimes it was much more direct, like I was able to experience with Don, Ron, and Reggie. ShawnI am fairly certain without those three men in my life, I would have done a lot more dumb stuff than I have. The only way I know to repay them is to do my part to be in the lives of the next generations. I’m certainly no angel, but an imperfect mentor who has learned a few things is better than no mentor at all.

I have changed a lot over the years. Some guys go to war and get angry, I mellowed out. I continue to change. They say a person is a meld of the 5 people they’re closest to, and I don’t know that I can argue that. I like to think as time goes on I continue to become a better person. With new life experiences to learn from, hurdles we overcome, I hope we all continue to become a better version of ourselves.

With that, here is my sister’s essay. To clarify for the small handful of you that might happen to know, there are a few minor details that aren’t completely accurate, but were they to be changed it would make no difference to the essay, and the further any of us get from those experiences, the more we’d stray from 100% accuracy in our recollection of the stories anyway.


My Brother, My Hero

by Heidi [Kirsch] Braunagel


If someone had asked me the question “What do you think of your older brother?” two years ago, I would have said, “I love him, but I don’t particularly like him.” Two years ago, Shawn, an average college freshman, attended Mayville State University. In November, 2003, his sergeant called him, saying their company was on alert for deployment to Iraq. Three months later, my family and I said goodbye and left Shawn in Fort Carson, Colorado, a few days before he left for “the big sandbox.” Shawn returned from Iraq last February, after a one-year tour of duty with the 141st Engineer Combat Battalion of the North Dakota Army National Guard. Some people who knew him quite well before he left say he is a new man, and, in some ways, I can see that; however, some things never change.

When he returned from Iraq, I saw some alterations in Shawn’s lifestyle and habits, but some days, I couldn’t help but smile when aspects of his old being came shining through his tough, new, sun-baked exterior. When I said goodbye to him in February 2004, he was a risk taker, a kid of average intelligence who wasn’t overly ambitious, and a guy with little job experience; however, when he returned, he was a man who seemed kinder and gentler, exhibited a new brand of wisdom, and held the experience of an occupation unlike any other—and I like this version of Shawn a lot better than the previous.

In his high school years, Shawn spent a great deal of time arguing with my parents. Due to his job as a truck driver, my dad was usually only home on weekends, so all the negative discussions Shawn and my mom had during the week were revisited when Dad returned. I can recall one particular instance where Shawn displayed his argumentative, rebellious side. The night before his high school graduation, Shawn returned home very late. He had been in Dickinson with his friend, Matt. Shawn would have gone alone, but his license had been taken away when he was caught driving 113 miles per hour in a zone marked 65, a previous topic of the above mentioned “discussions.” Matt’s parents, who happen to be the school superintendent and his wife, called my parents, worrying about their son.

When Shawn and Matt returned home around midnight, my dad threw a fit. I had been sleeping pretty well up until that point, but when Dad started yelling, I woke up. He told Shawn, in a horribly loud voice, that he needed to apologize to Matt’s parents before he walked across the stage at graduation in the afternoon. This incident upset me quite a bit, probably because my brother was going to leave home soon, and I hated thinking about the possibility of him never coming back because of the unstable relationship he shared with Mom and Dad. If I had only known what was around the corner, such a small matter wouldn’t have upset me.

When he returned after spending a year in Iraq, Shawn acted much better than he did before he left; he stopped arguing so much and kept his thoughts to himself. I believe the twelve months away from home made him realize how fortunate he is to have a family, especially one that cares about him. He still argues with Mom and Dad, but much less frequently. Shawn cares more about my brothers and me as well. He lets us borrow some of his things and maintains composure when a situation turns out opposite of what he had hoped for. I know the possibility of Shawn getting upset still exists, but it takes a bit more prodding to evoke a yelling and screaming match these days.

Shawn’s risk-taking side may have played a role in how he behaved in high school as well. He never applied himself as much as he could. He possessed the capability to earn As and Bs in his classes, but he chose not to put forth the effort to attain those grades, and instead, got Cs and Ds. I suppose it never bothered Shawn too much, but it hurt me to see him not achieve what I knew he could. I looked up to him, and his academic performance made me doubt whether or not I should want to be like him.

When he returned, however, Shawn held a new brand of wisdom, a kind of intelligence shared only by those who had been with him in the Middle East. Many news reporters, try as they may, lack the knowledge of what is really happening. We only see what they want us to see, but the soldiers know the inside story. Shawn, when given a start on the subject, speaks of the few close calls he had while on patrol, the high numbers of specific groups of Iraqi people we think are minorities, the fun the soldiers had, and the good being done despite being in a bad situation. Our soldiers are the only Americans able to truly describe what the war in Iraq is like. I consider myself lucky to know a person so close to me who voluntarily shares his experiences and knowledge of the war of this generation.

Given his level of education before leaving, Shawn, like many other teenagers in my hometown, had little choice when it came to jobs. No one needs anyone to work for them, but some people willingly offer jobs to people they trust. Reggie, the youth leader at my church, gave Shawn a job on his farm. Shawn spent the summers of 2002 and 2003 working in the fields and around the farmyard. I think he enjoyed the work, and he couldn’t complain about the amount of money he earned. Being a farmhand was a good job for Shawn, but he needed more experience; little did he know he was in for the job experience of a lifetime.

In Iraq, Shawn’s platoon held the responsibility of finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on and along the roads, collecting them, and setting them off in a safer location. While some soldiers searched for IEDs, others watched for the enemy, ready to fire in a moment’s notice. During his first month in Iraq, Shawn e-mailed us his account of what had happened on one day’s mission. He had been looking for roadside bombs from the front of his humvee when a missile shot across the hood of the vehicle. Had the vehicle been going any faster, it would have gone though the front driver’s side window, in all likelihood causing multiple fatalities. My brother also felt the excitement and power of being a gunner while he was in Iraq. On his birthday, he was chosen to be the shooter when they went on patrol. When we heard this story, we asked Shawn if he killed anyone. He told us that they never went back to check, but he knew that his group avoided being hit because the Iraqis are “lousy shots.” Shawn, in addition to his “fun,” felt the pain of losing a fellow soldier when one man from his platoon died after being wounded. Being a soldier allowed him to catch a glimpse of real life—the life behind the scenes of the war.

Shawn has changed in many ways, but the most obvious change is that he has become a veteran. He is also, in my mind, a hero. He may have done nothing special to make him better than any other soldier, but the fact that he willingly served our country makes him a hero in my eyes.

By recognizing the ways Shawn has changed, I can better understand why he behaves the way he does, and by doing so, help him. If I realize he is in a “mood,” I know to avoid him and let him figure things out on his own. If he starts talking about something of which I have no knowledge, I know not to question his intelligence. Finally, if he talks about his experience as a soldier, I know to listen, so I may learn all I can about what he went through.

If asked now what I think about Shawn, I would say, “I love him, but I’m still working on liking him.” Comedian Mark Lowry sums it up well when he says, “There are some people you love who you just don’t like. You know who they are. You’ll cry at their funeral, but you won’t go on vacation with them.” I feel the same way about Shawn right now, but as time goes on, I am certain I will begin to like him more for who he is—my brother, my hero.

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