Army Aviation

Determined to Fly Again

Photo By Staff Sgt. Courtney Rorick | Capt. Brendan Meehan poses for a photo at the New Hampshire Army Aviation Support Facility in Concord, NH. Meehan was injured during an Iranian missile strike on Jan 8, 2020, in Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. After approximately two years of extensive treatment, the pilot is now flying again and commanding a unit. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Courtney Rorick)

Story by Staff Sgt. Courtney Rorick
114th Public Affairs Detachment

After receiving intel of a potential Iranian attack on Al Asad Air Base, in western Iraq, Capt. Brendan Meehan began calling units from the operations tent, warning them to seek shelter.

In the early morning hours of Jan 8, 2020, Iran sent a barrage of 22 missiles targeted at coalition headquarters in Al Asad and Erbil Air Base in northern Iraq, in response to the U.S. assassination of Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani.

A missile struck only 100-yards from Meehan’s location, causing a 500-yard shockwave and sending shrapnel and debris thousands of feet throughout the radius.

The blast threw him 15-feet.

“I was compressed into a spring, thrown, tumbled, then hit my back,” described Meehan. “I looked down and there was this big fire ball of smoke. Things were crackling and my first thought was that they blew up the ops tent.”

Meehan assessed his injuries, rolled over, and attempted to move.

“I couldn’t get up,” said Meehan. “I began crawling to the nearest bunker.”

Once he got inside, after a long pause, Meehan heard a faint “Sir, are you okay?”

After a little while longer, Meehan regained his bearing enough to navigate back and forth between two bunkers, located approximately 50-yards apart. Bouncing between the two, Meehan continued to check on troops inside.

He said an onslaught of multiple missiles ensued following the initial strike.

“The ground moved,” Meehan said. “It felt like tremors. I’ve never felt anything like it. They came down the runway, one by one.”

“I originally placed my team in a bunker located 10-feet from a hangar by the airfield,” said Meehan. “I ended up moving them because it was too far away from my location; I needed better command and control.”

The vacated bunker was later found filled and peppered by shrapnel.

His decision was live-saving. Meehan, a pilot with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment (MEDEVAC), New Hampshire Army National Guard, was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for his steadfast thinking, helping to save the lives of nine Soldiers.

While no U.S. Troops were killed in the attack, Meehan said the base was destroyed. The unit lost aircraft, buildings, and various equipment, leaving them temporarily inoperable.

Three days following the attack, Meehan realized the true severity of his team’s injuries and called one of the flight doctors located nearby to assess.

Each soldier was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Although he didn’t feel well himself, Meehan focused on his team’s well-being. Meehan had to be ordered to seek medical care.

“He said, ‘When are you going to get seen? You’re not okay,’” described Meehan. “I wanted to set the example, so I got checked out. It was the right thing to do.”

It was only 10 minutes into the assessment when the doctor told Meehan he needed further evaluation.

“That’s when the symptoms really crashed in,” Meehan said. “It was debilitating; I felt like the world was spinning.”

“I couldn’t look at screens,” he added. “I had major headaches.”

Meehan recalled how he would have to lay on the floor just to be “okay.”

“My neck was so locked up at one point because my brain was trying to perceive the world correctly, which caused everything to seize up,” said Meehan.

While Meehan awaited his replacement, he continued to push through the injury placing the mission first and getting the MEDEVAC team operational.

On February 7, Meehan was evacuated to a military medical facility, in Landstuhl, Germany, for further assessment.

“Unfortunately, due to my condition, they determined I needed immediate relocation to Walter Reed (National Medical Center),” said Meehan, who arrived there on February 13.

During multiple evaluations, doctors told Meehan he would never fly again.

“I was told, ‘you know, you really should be looking for other jobs outside of aviation,’” said Meehan. “Or, ‘you should be on this medication so you can get better.’”

Meehan made the decision to refuse any medication treatment; he didn’t want his brain to develop a reliance on a prescription to function normally.

“This is my life,” said Meehan. “I felt like I was being told to recreate my sense of self, which is something I wasn’t willing to do until I exercised all other option.”

“This would have grounded me indefinitely and any hope of flying again would be in jeopardy,” said Meehan. “I wasn’t willing to give up that easily.”

On May 7, nearly four months after the attack, Meehan was awarded the Purple Heart, presented by Gen. James McConville, 40th Chief of Staff of the Army.

Amidst the recognition for his wounds, Meehan recognized within himself that his symptoms were worsening. He made the decision to seek alternative treatment plans and pursue other options.

“He always kind of down-played how serious everything was because he didn’t want anyone to feel bad,” said retired Sgt. First Class Rodney Anderson, an operations non-commissioned officer with 54th Troop Command at the time.

Anderson, who was also Meehan’s first platoon sergeant, was informed of the decision to leave the hospital and arrived at Walter Reed with fellow aviators to bring him back to the Granite State.

Upon arriving home to New Hampshire, Meehan began exploring other forms of care. After an exhaustive search, Dr. Victor Pedro, the chief innovation officer at the International Institute for the Brain in Manhattan, New York, accepted his case.

“I will never forget the day I met Brendan,” said Pedro as he recounted the moment during a phone interview. “I first met his dad.”

“His dad came in with him and I remember I was looking up at him,” said Pedro of the vast height difference between himself and Meehan’s father. “He put his hands on my shoulders and said ‘you’ve got to get my son better. You’ve got to get him flying again… please.’”

“As a dad, as a father of four, I just understood,” added Pedro, who choked up as he recalled the events.

When describing the most challenging part of the recovery process, Pedro said the impact from a traumatic brain injury can become more severe the longer it’s left untreated. Unfortunately, Meehan was a victim to the detriment of time.

“He couldn’t get the treatment he needed because everything was shut down,” recalled Pedro, describing the nation-wide health care stress on medical facilities due to COVID-19. “This let the situation set in. Whereas, ideally, you get them in right away.”

Although new obstacles continued to emerge, Meehan never lost focus on his goal to once again fly.

“This guy was at it and you have to hand it to him because he just didn’t stop,” said Anderson, describing Meehan’s resilience. “He never quit.”

“He went the extra mile to make sure he got where he needed to be, which was back in the cockpit,” Anderson added.

According to Pedro, one of the keys to getting the Aviator better would be his sheer determination and drive.

“He was willing to do whatever it took,” said Pedro. “That’s half the battle.”

Simply put, Pedro described Meehan’s rehabilitation as a series of stimulations, which tested his visual and sensory abilities.

“Once the cogs and the wheels start going, you want them to synchronize,” Pedro said. “The brain has two pacemakers; we wanted the timing of those loops to be right.”

Approximately two-years after his injury, and extensive work with Dr. Pedro, Meehan went back to Walter Reed to complete a series of neuro-cognitive tests required to fly again. These included, but were not limited to, brain exercises testing reactions to loud noises and lights, as well as memory assessments.

“The lead up to being cleared was extremely daunting and unknown,” Meehan said.

Meehan’s efforts paid off and he received an “up slip,” clearing him to fly. In June of 2022, while on annual training at Camp Edwards, Joint Base Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, Meehan conducted his first flight post injury.

“My first flight back I was very nervous,” said Meehan. “I just kept thinking ‘I hope this goes well.’”

“It really took a year after I finally flew to get the mission set back,” Meehan added. “At that point it felt like I finally knew what my future would be like again.”

Meehan attests that without the doctors at Walter Reed, Dr. Pedro, the support from the New Hampshire Army National Guard, and a list of other encouraging individuals throughout his healing journey, he would never be in the cockpit again.

Today, not only is Meehan flying but he is also in command of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment.

“His drive, dedication, compassion and tenacity to recover are the epitome of a truly well-rounded leader,” said Col. Woody Groton, special projects officer with Joint Forces Headquarters and former commander of 54th Troop Command. “His resilience, when faced with adversity and uncertainties, is something we can all learn from.”

That feeling is shared by long-time friend, Anderson.

“Overcoming this injury, to then fly again, and take command,” added Anderson. “He’s simply unmatched by others and this is a testament to his incredible character.”

When asked how it felt to look back and to see how far he’s ventured, Meehan described the experience as eye-opening.

“I think this has made me more well-rounded,” said Meehan. “I’m able to better understand the things my soldiers go through when it comes to challenges, sacrifices and adversity.”

“This journey really made me grow as a person, professionally and personally,” he added. “I think this has made me a better pilot.”