Cal Poly’s Veterans Success Center is showcasing themes relating to diversity, leadership and military service throughout the week to honor those who served for Veterans Awareness Week.
Bryan Cochran is a city and regional planning junior, but he’s also a war veteran. This is his story.
Bryan Cochran joined the military to give himself another chance.
Near the end of high school, Cochran was at odds. His grandparents, who had raised him, had passed away. He soon found himself encircled in a turbulent cloud of distress with the rest of his family.
Confined to only the barest of choices, Cochran moved in with his girlfriend and her parents. He had only just graduated high school.
“I kind of didn’t have anywhere to go,” Cochran said. “I felt like I didn’t have anything and the military itself was kind of a way out.”
For Cochran and many others like him, the military was an opportunity to reinvent himself. He chose the Marine Corps because it was the “toughest one.”
“At that time, I’d been a bull-rider, played sports my entire life,” he said. “That was the kind of person I considered myself.”
Cochran married his then girlfriend — now wife — at age 19, just 10 days before departing for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. During those 13 weeks, he was put into extreme situations of physical and emotional stress that prepared him for the soon-to-be arduous undertaking of the U.S. Military.
Post training, he was allotted 10 days of leave, then returned. Only this time, he would attend combat training and then combat engineering school, where he would learn the overview of his entire field and the specifics of his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) which primarily focused on explosives and demolition, specifically targeted toward IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Cochran didn’t leave for Iraq until February of 2009, having just turned 21.
His first tour of duty in Iraq consisted of hard labor — Cochran and his platoon mostly worked on mine sweeping for weapons cache, which were sometimes buried under civilians’ homes.
At the minimum, he was working 14-hour days, walking miles to work, and staying up most nights building fighting posts. His platoon spent a couple weeks teaching the Iraqi military sustainable construction methods, a sort of act to “hand over the reins.”
And while the days often felt never-ending, Cochran would be the last to say he thought about giving up.
He recalled his first 22-hour day in Camp Baharia, a militray installation outside of Fallujah where he spent seven grueling months of his life. He’d been up all night after a full day carrying sandbags to and from the base, building fighting posts and when the squad finally finished working at 5 a.m., they would be back at work at 8 a.m. to start all over again.
And though his narrative may position around the technicalities of wartime, to describe his experience in the military as a prolonged session of manual labor would be a stark minimization.
Because for Cochran, and perhaps a large portion of military veterans, it seems easier to talk about the intricacies of war within the context of military jargon and various three-letter acronyms than to remember the feelings attached, and with good reason — the experience is, to a certain point, indescribable.
But, of course, there are a few moments Cochran will never be able to forget.
Most of them occurred between September 2010 and April 2011, during his second tour which was in Afghanistan. He had risen in rank — he was a corporeal, and second in charge to the squad leader.
Cochran was fighting as part of a QRF, or quick reaction force, which meant he and his platoon were the first in line to react to any violence or explosive activity.
He remembers Afghanistan as being, in comparison, much more kinetic — sleeping was a mere afterthought. Nothing was stable; at any point, day or night, Cochran was expected, with immediacy, to support the area the explosion had struck.
“I was in front or behind of every single vehicle that got blown up,” he said. “Those images will probably always stay with me.”
But he got used to it. Like so many others who enter the U.S. military, there is a point, Cochran says, to where you just feel numb.
“It happens pretty quick,” he said. “You go through it every time, but you’ve trained for that. Your whole preparation is to be able to deal with that kind of stuff.”
And though he was subject to some of the most afflicting emotional and physical sensors imaginable, Cochran vowed never to forget about his life before the military. He made it “a point” to call his wife as much as he could, just to talk.
“It was the only thing that helped me recharge, to motivate me to keep going,” he said. “Some people felt the opposite — they didn’t want to bother their wives or felt they needed to keep their minds focused — but I felt like it was nice to just get away, even for a second.”
The only other thing keeping him sane enough to call was the strength he amassed through his friends, Cochran said.
“The bond you have with them, you wouldn’t imagine,” he said. “I would give my life for any one of those guys.”
And many times, it came close. One of his best friends lost both legs and an arm. Cochran was so ingrained in the unimaginable totality of war, the long march of panic — all that kept him going was the indestructible bond he shared with the men he had grown to so revere.
When he came home, however, he found himself wanting to go back. He’d been “on guard,” mentally and physically for the primal part of his early adulthood.
“Especially after I got back, I was kind of a wreck,” he said. “You’re surrounded by these people with these petty problems, these superficials attitudes — people who have no idea what’s really going on.”
The return to trivialities felt so foreign, so minuscule — the now 27-year-old found himself struggling to assimilate back into modern living.
“When you’re in it, it sucks, but it does for everyone,” Cochran said. “And when you come back, you’re alone with it all.”
Time hasn’t healed — all it has done is run its course in helping him reintegrate back into the world he used to know. He’d spent so much of his time soaked in the essential quality of resilience — giant to the overpowering forces of true danger and harm.
Suddenly everything has become so quiet.
Silent as he finds a way to weave through the ill-informed screams of pro-peace, grasping for navigation where the biggest issue at hand is too much food in the grocery aisle.
Towering more than 6 feet tall, Cochran and I part ways, splitting at the seams of a story still unfinished, entering into an alternate galaxy where squabbles over that girl’s Snapchat story dematerialize, unravel, ceasing to a buzz. A hollow place where quiet will just have to do.