CONCORD, N.H. — 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.
Early in the morning 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,” Meehan said. “I looked down and there was this big fireball 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 OK?”
After a little while longer, Meehan regained his bearing enough to navigate back and forth between two bunkers about 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 lifesaving. 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 helping to save the lives of nine Soldiers.
While no U.S. troops were killed in the attack, Meehan said the base was destroyed.
Three days after the attack, Meehan realized the true severity of his team’s injuries and called a flight doctor.
Each Soldier was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Although he didn’t feel well himself, Meehan focused on his team’s well-being and had to be ordered to seek medical care.
“He said, ‘When are you going to get seen? You’re not OK,’” Meehan recalled. “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. I had major headaches.”
While Meehan awaited his replacement, he continued to push through the injury, placing the mission first and getting the medevac team operational.
On Feb. 7, Meehan was evacuated to a military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany.
“Unfortunately, due to my condition, they determined I needed immediate relocation to Walter Reed (National Medical Center),” said Meehan, who arrived there Feb. 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 refused any medication; he didn’t want his brain to develop a reliance on a prescription to function normally.
“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, chief of staff of the Army.
But Meehan recognized his symptoms were worsening and decided to seek alternative treatment.
“He always kind of downplayed how serious everything was because he didn’t want anyone to feel bad,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Anderson, an operations noncommissioned officer with 54th Troop Command at the time.
Anderson, who was also Meehan’s first platoon sergeant, was informed Meehan had decided to leave the hospital and arrived at Walter Reed with fellow aviators to return him to the Granite State.
Back in New Hampshire, Meehan explored other forms of care and found Dr. Victor Pedro, the chief innovation officer at the International Institute for the Brain in New York.
“I will never forget the day I met Brendan,” Pedro said. “... His dad came in with him and I remember I was looking up at him. 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,” said Pedro, who choked up as he recalled the events.
Pedro said a traumatic brain injury can become more severe the longer it’s left untreated.
“He couldn’t get the treatment he needed because everything was shut down,” Pedro said, describing the nationwide 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 obstacles continued to emerge, Meehan never lost focus on his goal to fly again.
“You have to hand it to him because he just didn’t stop,” said Anderson. “He never quit. ... He was willing to do whatever it took. That’s half the battle.”
About two years after his injury, and extensive work with Pedro, Meehan went back to Walter Reed to complete a series of neurocognitive tests required to fly again.
“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 2022, while on annual training at Camp Edwards, Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Meehan conducted his first post-injury flight.
“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.”
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 his long-time friend, Anderson.
“Overcoming this injury to then fly again and take command,” said Anderson. “He’s simply unmatched by others and this is a testament to his incredible character.”
Meehan described his 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.”