Soulfires: Why Bram Came Back

A harrowing near-death experience equips one Navy SEAL for a life of valor.

In our Soulfires series, we share the stories of people who have encountered God in powerful ways and responded by initiating significant ministries.

“It’s time to make the commitment to be a better man, to write your own code, so you too can live a life of valor.”

Jeff Bramstedt takes the stage. Every man there looks at him wide-eyed, like they are in the presence of a mythical hero. His walk is strong and deliberate. His broad shoulders and solid form bolster his commanding presence.

He takes the mic with authority. “Good morning, Gentlemen,” the Navy SEAL says before he begins a day of exposing them to the rigors and tactical training of being a Navy SEAL. The goal is to rescue them from “masculine meltdown,” and to put them on a path toward valor and honor in their calling as leaders—leaders for the troubled times ahead. It’s a calling, Jeff believes, that comes from God to the men of the church. “It’s time to make the commitment to be a better man, to write your own code, so you too can live a life of valor.”

Jeff views discipline, courage and commitment in one’s daily walk with Christ as the keys to a common man living an uncommon life. He inspires men for the battles they face as leaders of their families and the church.

Jeff looks at the room. He’s glad to see them. He knows, by the looks on their faces, that they are glad to see him, too. What they don’t know is how close they came to never having the chance to see or hear him at all.

But their meeting with him on this day was orchestrated by God.

There’s no other way to explain it.

* * * * *

Other than the fact that this particular morning in 1996 was windier than usual on the island of Guam, there was no reason for Jeff “Bram” Bramstedt to have such a strange feeling rolling through his body. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He felt physically fine. He’d slept well. He’d eaten well. He was clear and prepared for another day’s training as a Navy SEAL. Nothing had happened recently to give him pause of any kind. Yet he wondered, Why does this morning feel so different?

He finally chalked it up to the unusually strong winds. That must have been why he found himself doing something different this morning: loading an extra oxygen cylinder in his pack.

There was just something about this day.

Bram, a SEAL medic, was to board one of four boats that would race out to a targeted location 2 miles off the Guam coast in the middle of the South Pacific, where they would wait for seven fellow SEALs to parachute from the sky into the water, where the boats would retrieve them.

As his team packed the boats, he took two of them aside to give them instructions on how to work the O2 cylinder. “Why are you showing us this, Bram?” they asked.

Bram hesitated and looked at them, noting the oddness of his own actions. “I don’t know,” he replied.

“So, just because you get a wild hair, you have to drag us into it?” they joked.

The teams boarded, which seemed to signal to the wind that it was time to pick up, just to make things more interesting. With gusts now doubled from just moments before, they sped into the high swells.

Arriving at the target, they located the plane overhead. The men were to parachute down and practice releasing just before hitting the water—allowing them to slide into the ocean, free of the parachute that could potentially drag them.

The teams on the water counted as seven chutes opened and began their descent. As they neared the water, they noticed that Smith, the first SEAL, was having trouble with his release system. He didn’t make it out before splashing down. Bram and his team watched to see how Smith was going to navigate the problem.

Other SEALs splashed down successfully. But team member Lopez landed right in the lines of Smith, who was still attached. As Lopez’s head surfaced, the team could see he was caught in Smith’s lines. The winds kicked up. Lopez’s inflated canopy began to pull quickly. The lines jerked across his neck. Suddenly it was clear that Lopez was being choked.

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Bram dove in and swam at panic speed. Arriving at Lopez, he could see that not only his neck was caught, but his arms were tangled in the lines and he was barely holding on.

With Lopez being dragged at a fast clip, Bram was left to swim alongside him and try to untangle his neck. Bram saw that the lines around Lopez’s neck were so tight, the muscles collapsed over them. He couldn’t even see the lines any more.

He looked back to see that his boat had driven to the canopy to try to deflate it. In doing so, the propellers tangled themselves in the canopy and were now trying to chug their way out.

Bram grabbed Lopez and looked in his face. Lopez was gone. He had been hanged in the water. He grabbed Lopez and held on, kicking as hard as he could to keep them afloat. Suddenly, he felt the lines gather around him. Smith, the first SEAL into the water, finally got himself out of his release system and now the lines were free to encircle Bram. They began to wrap around him while he thrashed about trying to keep both heads above water.

Bram found himself and Lopez wrapped so tightly together, Bram could no longer move his arms—and they both began to sink.

He tried to wiggle free. He tried to move his hand to pull the release for inflating his lifejacket. When he couldn’t, he tried to reach Lopez’s release, but couldn’t reach that either. The line around his body cinched tighter. He couldn’t separate his legs to kick. He couldn’t move an arm or a shoulder. Bram was helpless as he was pulled further under the surface, face to face with a dead man.

As the bubbles rushed past his face, the gravity of the situation revealed itself. A few seconds prior, he was standing on a boat ready for another day of training. Now, he was 30 feet down without the ability to move an inch of his body.

So is this where it ends, he wondered. Nose to nose with a dead SEAL over the Mariana Trench, a piece of ocean so deep that the bottom has never been found? Will my body ever be located? Will my parents have a funeral without my body? Will I never be a father? Will I never grow old with a wife?

Suddenly, they reached the end of the full length of the line, as the other end was still stuck in the propellers. They began to slowly swing back under the boat.

Bram looked around and noticed the quiet aqua blue. I know I’ll die, someday, he thought to himself. It’s just not going to be today.

Immediately, Bram realized that while he had no use of his limbs, he could still dolphin kick. The butterfly stroke was his event in high school, and he knew that he had only been submerged for about a minute. I’m strong, he thought. I can do this.

And so he began to push every muscle to its limit, kicking and undulating his body and Lopez’s upward, higher and higher, inch by painfully slow inch. For a time, he couldn’t even tell if all of his struggling was actually propelling him up. His lungs were about to explode, with the surface seeming to come into view but the more he pushed, the more oxygen in his blood he used—and the daggers of pain were starting to tear at his chest. Still, with the surface seeming to be only inches away, he could not break into the blue sky he saw. He pushed more, kicking his feet, moving his body back and forth, back and forth. Slowly, the outer edges of his vision began to close, like a camera lens shutting in painfully slow increments. Still, he pushed upward.

Then, in the closing moments of his vision, he thought he saw a hand. Suddenly, he was being ripped from the water. His supervisor had reached over the side of his boat. His 220 pounds of muscle launched Bram and Lopez aboard—both landing with a thud like two dead fish.

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A harrowing screech escaped Bram’s lungs as they filled with the oxygen he so desperately needed. With help from his teammates, he pulled himself loose and looked at Lopez, lying face up, the lines around his neck cinched to the size of his spinal cord—no bigger than a tennis ball. His face was beet red.

Someone handed Bram a knife. He knew to cut the lines at the front of his neck would risk the vital organs there. He quickly turned Lopez on his face and began to cut at the back of his neck even though he couldn’t see the lines. Blood began to spring up as he blindly tried to sever the nylon cords while not cutting too deeply into his neck. Suddenly he heard snapping. He turned Lopez back over, ripped the lines away, and his two teammates—whom Bram had instructed in administering oxygen that morning—began to expand and contract their fellow SEAL’s lungs.

Another boat pulled up. They transferred Lopez, securing him onto a Velcro spine board, and then it was a full-throttle gallop over the swells back to the shore.

It had been more than six minutes that Lopez was without air. To bring someone back after six minutes enters into the realm of the miraculous. Still, per Bram’s instruction, his team continued to recreate the motion of Lopez’s lungs. Lopez was unresponsive. “Come on!” Bram yelled as he held Lopez’s hand with one of his own and slapped his unmoving teammate’s face with the other.

Time was slipping past as the boat bounced violently along. “Lopez! You there? Come on now! You have to fight!” Bram knew it had been too long. Lopez was not coming back.

Bram looked at Lopez hard. He was a father of two girls. He had deployed several times and been in numerous dangerous situations. Ending his life in a mere training exercise just didn’t seem right.

All at once, Lopez’s eyes fluttered. Bram looked at him as if he wasn’t sure of what he saw. “Lopez?”

Just then, Lopez’s muscles contracted sharply, springing his body violently forward and snapping the Velcro constraints like twigs—and then he vomited everywhere. “We got him—he’s back!” Bram yelled excitedly to his supervisor, still furiously driving the boat.

Lopez opened his mouth, and like a dictionary shaking loose its contents, random words began to fall. “Monster me cliff with laughing off, off, off, don’t spin the time, up the grass … ”

When they got to shore, Lopez and the team were loaded into a waiting vehicle. Bram gave him an IV, and then continued to hold him. “I had a dream they were throwing my daughters off an airplane,” Lopez yelled, with a death grip on Bram. “Don’t let go of me, Bram, don’t let go.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Dude.”

At the hospital, the staff rushed Lopez toward the OR, and attended to the nearly naked and shivering Bram. Finally, he was able to leave Lopez’s side as the doctors took control. Bram watched as the team wheeled him away. Standing in the hall alone, he breathed deeply.

He walked behind the hospital to the ambulance receiving ramp and sat down. The wind had calmed and the morning was shaping up to be another beautiful day. The warm sun beamed brightly on the ramp and on the plastic chairs littered about. Still, he was cold and he pulled the blankets tighter around his body.

Everything was all at once so quiet.

Then it started—first small, around his back, then his shoulders. The trembling moved toward his throat, and finally his face when the full force of what had just happened found its way to the surface and breached. And there, Bram cried in great waves.I’m alive, he thought. Why am I still alive?

Read more about Jeff Bramstedt’s ministry, Life of Valor »

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