DOTHAN, Ala. — Staff Sgt. Brandon Bagwell has been deployed several times to serve in the nation's wars with Iraq and Afghanistan. Each homecoming has been relatively normal, but this one would be his last and he wanted to do something memorable for himself and his 14-year-old son, Braidden.
Enter Northside Methodist Academy, the Dothan Fire Department, and a ruse of a fire prevention education program.
Bagwell, who is retiring from the military after six tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as a member of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Criminal Investigation Division, Southeast Asia Station, worked with the Dothan Fire Department to disguise himself in full turnout gear as part of a demonstration to students at the Northside Methodist gymnasium.
Braidden, a freshman at the school, was "randomly" selected to participate in the demonstration. His job was to help Bagwell remove his gear. When Braidden removed Bagwell's air mask and recognized his father for the first time Wednesday, he took a step back in surprise, tucked his head and smiled, then the two embraced.
The assembled high school student body at Northside broke out in applause.
Military homecomings never get old. This was one the Northside faculty and administration wasn't going to miss.
"I grabbed my tissue during the reunion moment," said Lisa Batchelor, marketing director for Northside Methodist Academy, who helped facilitate the homecoming. "I have had butterflies in the last few days in thinking ahead toward this, so when it actually happened I was overcome with emotion to be right here witnessing it in person. It was awesome."
Braidden, 14, is a typical freshman. He can be a cut-up at times, but isn't 100 percent comfortable when that many eyes are on him. However, the reunion made it all worthwhile.
Because Bagwell has served in the special forces and been involved in several special operations, he hasn't had the opportunity to communicate with relatives via Skype or other social media while on assignment. That can make deployments even more difficult. Bagwell, who holds a degree from Liberty University, said he relied on his faith throughout his military career.
Braidden, meanwhile, has learned to adjust.
"I haven't seen him in a while. I'm glad he's here," Braidden said. "I don't get to see him that often, but when he was at Fort Leavenworth last year, I went over to stay with him before he went to Korea. That was the first time I really got to spend time with him. Now he's back and I think he's going to retire, so I guess he is going to stay home."
Bagwell said this final homecoming provided the best opportunity to do something special.
"With our type jobs, we come and go, and you don't know when we get back until you show up. And, with clearance levels and things like that, you can't really have publicity. This time I'm out for good and wanted to do something for him because he's sacrificed a lot and certainly I think he deserved it. I'm looking forward to having some good days with him now."
Bagwell has served in various capacities involving several well publicized events. He was part of the security detail for the hanging of former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein. He was involved with the case of former Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Edward Manning), who leaked classified military documents to a then little-known site known as WikiLeaks. Manning received a 35-year prison sentence.
Bagwell was also involved in working the mass shooting at Fort Hood that resulted in the death of 13 people. Nidal Malik Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death for the incident. He has also been involved with detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In addition to the Iraq and Afghanistan-related assignments, he also worked with the 20th Special Forces Group as part of a drug task force in South America.
Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com