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After harrowing near-death experience, veteran finds new direction, passions at CCRI
May 17, 2016
It has been a long search and a winding road to self-discovery for Community College of Rhode Island Class of 2016 Student Commencement Speaker Brandon Langdon, 26, of Middletown, both in the metaphorical and literal sense.
His taste for adventure and zest for life – not to mention his nearly seven years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard – have taken him far. But close to home, at the CCRI Newport County Campus, is where he finally started to see his future take shape.
"I was kind of a punk in high school. I was rebellious, outspoken, hotheaded," he said. "I got kicked off the football team, I got suspended, I got arrested. You name it, it happened."
Following his high school graduation, in a moment of self-introspection, he realized he might benefit from the discipline of the armed services. So, at age 18, he went from cutting class to crew cuts and from aimless cruising around town to a highly regimented existence.
"It gave me a sense of purpose," he said. "And besides giving me discipline, it taught me responsibility, how to hold myself accountable and do the best job I could. Besides the obvious stuff? It taught me who I was, essentially. What I'm good at and what I'm not good at."
It turned out he was good at adapting to the military life. He started as a deckhand and worked his way up to food service specialist, excelling in cook school and running kitchens. He also went above and beyond, getting his law enforcement qualifications.
"In the Coast Guard, there's only so many people; you have to wear multiple hats," he explained.
And then, there was the travel. He said he caught the travel bug after his first tour in Hawaii, and to this day relishes the experience of being in new places.
But it was in a familiar place, just off the coast of California near Santa Cruz Island, where Langdon's life took a turn so sharp that the whiplash is reverberating all these years later.
He and a small crew on a Coast Guard cutter, Halibut, were patrolling the waters for the eighth day in a row, and the team was getting tired. At around 2 a.m., the crew spotted a suspicious vessel entering the area; Langdon said they had received intelligence about suspicious activity in the area, so the crew was on alert. Following protocol, Langdon, the boat's Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III and a few other crew members boarded their small craft and flashed warning lights at the men.
"Instead of running away, they ambushed us," he said. "They rammed our boat, and I was pinned underneath their boat. My buddy was firing his pistol off. It was utter chaos."
They were thrown into the water. Luckily, the CO2 cartridge in Langdon's life vest was activated and he was able to stay afloat, even as the men doubled back and ran him over with their boat, the wake pulling him down in the roiling sea. When the suspects made a run for the horizon, Langdon and his crew pulled Horne, who had also been knocked from the boat, back to the Halibut.
"I was holding his head and his neck during the whole ordeal," he said. "But he got hit in the head. There wasn't much we could do for him, but we didn't want to acknowledge the fact that he was going to die. We kept doing what we had to do, administering first aid and CPR."
When the crew made it back to the pier, Horne was pronounced dead.
"I was in shock for five months," said Langdon. "I didn't cry at all. The crew had already mourned his loss, but I was so intimately involved in the situation – I went into the water – I think it took a heavy toll on me. I was numb to the whole thing."
When the shock wore off, Langdon fell apart. He was hospitalized, diagnosed with PTSD and medically discharged. After a year of limbo working in kitchens on base, he was back home in Middletown. But he might as well have been lost at sea.
"I don't know how I got through it," he said, adding that his crewmates, family and a girlfriend at the time were supportive, helping him stay busy. "I tried to distract my mind with other things."
One of those other things was the search for the next adventure. He thought he might want to be a chef; he had enjoyed cooking in the Coast Guard. "I hated it," he said of his attempts working at a restaurant in Newport. "It shocked me. I thought it was what I wanted to do. So I quit, and I was back at a crossroads again."
After relaxing for a summer and reconnecting with hometown friends, he decided that, having almost died serving his country, he might as well take the educational benefits that he had so rightly earned. He enrolled at the Newport campus and started taking a variety of classes, feeling out his interests. He also landed the perfect work-study job: He has been the head of the Newport Student Veterans Organization since September 2014.
"I haven't taken a semester off, and I've gone straight through," he said, now set to earn his associate degree in General Studies this month.
During that time, he said, he honed his passions and found his purpose. "I finally realized that I want to pursue writing, and translate that skill into the performing arts – acting, comedy and music, stuff like that."
He realized that much of the lack of direction he had experienced was because he was trying so hard to make himself fit a traditional mold when, really, the mold was broken when he came along. A restless traveler and a poet with a natural knack for writing and telling stories, he said his time at CCRI taught him that there were paths to explore beyond the traditional confines of jobs at desks – or on decks.
"I finally realized that I'm an artist, and this is what I want to do," he said. "I'm not meant to sit at a desk all day long. I'm meant to create things."
He said he is not sure where his next grand adventure will take him – only that it will be full of creativity and verve, much like Langdon himself. He's taking some time off to bartend in local restaurants while he plots his next move – hopefully to an artistically inclined college, such as Emerson in Boston, for his bachelor's degree. No matter what comes next, though, he has no doubts about it: He is up for the challenge.
"I always thought that I was a bright kid. But in high school, I wasn't the best student. Coming here made me realize that I transitioned my military skills well to the classroom – being disciplined and organized," he said. "But also, I learned that my work ethic, no matter what the job may be, is good. Whatever I set my mind to do, I do it. CCRI has expanded my mind."
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