Bronze Star Recipient, Gold Star Survivor
Losing a loved one forever changes someone’s life. For some, it shatters them. For others, it pushes them to better themselves. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon “Hock” Hockenbarger, 959th Medical Operations Squadron Internal Medicine flight chief, is the latter.
Two days after his 22nd birthday, Hockenbarger got the call that he had lost his older brother, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Neil Christopher Hockenbarger, in a car accident, leaving his family as Gold Star survivors.
Hockenbarger swore he would never join the military, even though he came from a long line of military men, with a grandfather in the Army, the other Navy, and his father a Marine.
“I always felt like the black sheep of the family,” Hockenbarger stated. “I was extremely hard headed.”
Neil was the inspiration for Hockenbarger’s recruitment into the Air Force after he continuously pushed his little brother to join.
“He showed me how life could be better in the Air Force, and how it had given him purpose after losing his wife to cancer,” Hockenbarger said. “When my brother spoke, I listened, even when he thought I wasn’t.”
The loss of his brother came 18 months after Hockenbarger followed his brother’s advice and enlisted.
Since then, Hockenbarger continues to do everything he can to honor his brother’s memory.
Hockenbarger’s latest deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan in 2020 was no different.
“I hit the ground running when I arrived in Bagram,” Hockenbarger said. “It was a dream come true to be the flight chief of the trauma department, and to see our team work together seamlessly, just made it that much better.”
A few days after arriving, Hockenbarger was tasked to forward deploy to Kabul, Afghanistan. The COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging the camp and the Headquarters Resolute Support Role 1 Clinic was in need of help.
Immediately, Hockenbarger jumped head first into training in multiple medical Air Force specialty codes including everything from pharmacy to radiology, to ensure he supported the base as efficiently as possible.
Once in Kabul, Hockenbarger moved the COVID-19 testing site away from the main medical facility to ensure the safety of both U.S. service members and NATO counterparts.
“When I arrived, within 15 minutes I was going door to door swabbing isolation patients,” Hockenbarger stated. “I took a step back and saw the U.S. and NATO service members were not able to socially distance while in line to get tested, so I worked with our civil engineers to move the testing site to allow everyone to safely distance while testing more efficiently.”
His efforts to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus helped lower the COVID-19 positive rates from 30 percent to less than one in a matter of three months.
During this time, the camp came under indirect fire while Hockenbarger and other medical personnel were outside testing patients for COVID-19. Together, they ensured all personnel and patients safely made it inside the Role 1 clinic; one of the only fully bomb proof buildings,
“I was in the middle of swabbing a patient when the alarms went off,” said Hockenbarger. “I quickly finished the swab, and I made sure everyone hit the ground. Once the all clear sounded, I collected all of the samples, and I remember grabbing patients and personnel, leading them across the open terrain into the Role 1. After I made sure everyone was inside, I started prepping for the possibility of a mass casualty event.”
While improving medical processes and ensuring patient safety, Hockenbarger also ensured service members had the necessary outlets to help bolster their resilience and mental well-being as well.
“I worked with the chaplains to setup social distanced church services as well as broadcast them virtually every Saturday to help promote the spiritual pillar of comprehensive airman fitness,” said Hockenbarger. “I also facilitated virtual teleconferencing mental health capabilities in a quiet room that was conducive to helping the coalition forces.”
Hockenbarger’s master resilience training played a vital role in his ability to mentor personnel through their trying times of quarantine and isolation.
Hockenbarger credits his 13 year career for being prepared for the challenges and obstacles he faced. His Tactical Air Control Party training to working with security forces and his years as a medic, all contributed to his success in this unique and trying environment.
“Everything happens for a reason,” stated Hockenbarger. “Every misguided supervisor, every good supervisor, everything I have been through in my career led me to this point. It made me into this melting pot of knowledge that I was able to use during this deployment.”
Even with his years of experience and numerous deployments, Hockenbarger still had days where he struggled to stay positive. Deployments take their toll on service members while they’re away from family, friends, and daily routine, but Hockenbarger had a “why” that kept him disciplined in his mission.
“I would think about my wife, my kids, and my brother,” Hockenbarger said. “I knew everything I was doing over there was nothing compared to what my wife was juggling back home between raising three kids and being a full time nursing student during a pandemic. I also would think about my brother, and how no matter what, he would hold his head high and keep going. They were my motivation to keep pushing through.”
The lives Hockenbarger saved and the obstacles he overcame led to him to being nominated and awarded the Bronze Star medal, the fourth-highest ranking decoration a service member can receive for meritorious service in an armed conflict.
“It is extremely humbling to be nominated and then awarded the Bronze Star,” Hockenbarger said. “Being an Air Force medic during COVID-19 is trying, but to know the hard work I had done was seen and recognized meant a lot to me. I know I made my family proud, and I know the things I accomplished and the people I helped would make my brother proud.”