Brownlee’s National Guard unit had been assigned to a desolate border outpost in November 2009. On Feb. 10 Brownlee and his comrades were relaxing in their bunks watching a movie after an all-day training session with the Afghan National Police. He had just hung up with his wife, Autumn, when a large explosion blew the metal door of the barracks into tiny missiles mixed with dirt, concrete and glass.
"I instantly turned away from the explosion and covered my face and balled my body just as the debris hit me," Brownlee said. "I had a stabbing pain in my leg and foot. I yelled at my buddies if they were OK."
Brownlee began to think about his life.
"Everyone responded in some way," he said. "I knew I had to get out of there, this is the way the base attacks start. I had to get the guys moving for security positions to prepare for the attack. I started to pull on my boot and felt pain as a piece of shrapnel was sticking out of top of my foot. I had to get outside and pulled the boot on anyway, grabbed my rifle, everyone was yelling ‘suicide bomber, suicide bomber.’"
A self-described Marine Corps brat, he was born at Camp LeJeune near Jacksonville, N.C. When he was 3, his father was transferred to Okinawa, Japan and the family including his three sisters left for the Far East.
"We had a Japanese nanny who taught Mom to speak Japanese and cooked Japanese food for us," Brownlee recalled. "I was very young, but I recall the nanny made me wear a really ugly shirt every day that she was there. She redeemed herself later by giving the family two beautiful canaries, which lived with us for years."
By the time he started elementary school, the family returned stateside to Millington, Tenn. at a base where his father was an aeronautical instructor for a time before he retired from the military. After moving the family back and forth between Georgia, Texas and California seeking work, they finally settled in Georgia near relatives. Brownlee was 12, and for the first time in his life, settled.
Brownlees parents traded work on a dairy farm near Newborn for a house and utilities. Six years later, the family was able to buy a home and land on County Line Road near Monticello.
Brownlee loved living on the farm and fully intended to become an agricultural teacher. He even got an agricultural scholarship to Gordon College in Barnesville, which came after his tenure of FFA president in high school. Something was amiss though. Dissatisfied with college and wanting to get out into the world, Brownlee dropped out of Gordon after one year
"I wanted to be in the military since I was 18 and only delayed my eventual military career thinking I could go into the teaching profession," he said, "but my roots were strongly planted in the military. Military brats are born into it. It’s hard to change that way of thinking and life."
Upon graduation from basic and advanced individual training, Brownlee was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas and then deployed to Iraq and Kuwait in 1997 as part of a peace-keeping mission ongoing since Operation Desert Storm.
In August, 1998, the Army sent Brownlee to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the wake of the breakup and subsequent war in Yugoslavia, with a NATO peacekeeping force and assigned to a Serbian Muslim village. There he saw the ravages of the war - buildings with no walls, children playing and living in those buildings
After four years in the Army, he wanted something different. Back in Monticello, he went in partnership with a friend installing water and sewer lines for new housing. The business failed.
Brownlee married in 1993, prior to joining the Army. After he and his wife had a child with special medical needs, his new family needed a steady income. He briefly worked as a manager of Bill's Dollar store in Monticello before joining the Monticello Police Department at the suggestion of his father who had served the department in the 1980s. After a little over a year he transferred to the McDonough Police Department and has been there ever since.
Five years ago Brownlee joined the Georgia National Guard and was called to active duty for them.
"My years in police work were invaluable in the military," he said. "The Guard is made up of people like me, more mature, who have had various careers, you know, life experience."
He was assigned to E Troop, 108th Cavalry out of Griffin, named after the old horse cavalry for the Indian Wars out West. At the time he thought two weekends a year for some extra cash was an easy commitment to make.
By 2007, the 108th Cavalry had been disbanded and Brownlee was assigned to an infantry unit — B Company, 121st Infantry in Newnan. By the end of that year, he had joined fulltime status with the Georgia National Guard, to assist in deployment preparation and in 2008, he had begun serving as the administrative NCO for B-Company.
"In January 2009 we went to Ft. Gordon where a buddy of mine and I ran the rifle ranges — qualifying the soldiers in the use of M4 and M16. Next, it was off to the ‘butt’ of the Army — Ft. Polk, La.," he said. "We did get good training — learning to interact in a simulated Iraqi village, taking some language classes, and also found we would be going to Iraq or Afghanistan."
His platoon arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in June 2009, staying a week at Camp Phoenix. He was assigned as the platoon sergeant for a police mentoring team and given a two-week job in the southeast town of Gardez — a supply hub with three military installations. From July to October he helped train Afghan police at Camp Wilderness before his next assignment.
"On August 20, 2009, Afghan Election Day, we got our first real taste of combat in a town called Gerda Serai. We were providing security for the elections. My guys spotted would-be ambushers of the polling sites," Brownlee said. "Well, they were very unsuccessful in the ambush."
Brownlee's dad died the day after the Afghan elections. He learned of his passing the day after, Aug. 22 – his birthday. Sadly, he learned about it on Facebook instead of from a calm voice on the phone.
"I flew home on the 26th and went back to Afghanistan after a couple of weeks. That was a hard time," he said. "My father was the man that I strived to emulate. When he passed, it took a lot out of me emotionally and the break back home was much needed at that time.
"Once the break was over, getting back to work and back to my men was all that was on my mind."
In November the platoon made their way to the village of Dand Patan.
"The border outpost had nothing Americanized. Planes or helicopters would fly over us and drop us water, MRE's and packages from our families," he recalled. "All we had were Afghan bathrooms, basically a hole in the middle of a porcelain slab, and went a couple of weeks without a shower."
The troops quickly began to make improvements to their post.
"We made the best of it at our outpost in Afghanistan," he said. "Eventually we got some bathrooms since we had some folks in our unit with plumbing experience. It was great being able to take a shower.
"We found out we could get just about anything we needed through the supplies in Kabul and have it dropped in to us. We had a kitchen eventually, and hot food was a blessing."
The troops even installed a satellite TV feed in time for the 2010 Super Bowl. Times were relatively pleasant until Feb. 10.
In the area where Brownlee and his unit were located it is common to have no air support, no gun ships. They were virtually on their own in a valley surrounded by mountainous terrain. Supported by drug money and contributions from sympathizers, the Taliban was in control of the hundreds of tribes that populate the country.
Brownlee was in a precarious situation of trying to train a loose, but hardworking police force to combat the Taliban.
"The unidentified suicide bomber could have been one of any of the Afghans that lived on our base," Brownlee said. "After I was hit, I went outside trying to make some sense of the chaos, then for some crazy reason I went back to my bunk, gathered a backpack full of my personal items, including my cell phone, before heading to the medical station."
Once his unit’s air lift from the base to the forward operations base at Salerno was complete, Brownlee called his wife.
"I didn’t want her to hear it on the television or read it on the Internet news," he said.
Less than two hours after the attack, the news of the attack went mainstream.
Brownlee underwent surgeries at Salerno and at Bagram Airfield. He skipped from Landsthul, Germany to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., before finally arriving at Fort Benning.
"We had a month left in Afghanistan when the suicide bomber hit us. I had to leave my men behind, and it hurt to know I was not there," Brownlee said. "My friend near me in the next bunk received shrapnel through his heart and eye. He is still recovering at Andrews. I have months of recovery as well."
It’s not hard to see why Brownlee is thankful that he can share with others on this Memorial Day.
"My family is such a blessing to me and the community has rallied around us," he said. "The yellow ribbons, the welcome home in the square, the handshakes of other veterans, some old enough to be my great-grandfather. It all means so much. I would never have dreamed that I would have had these experiences."