PHOENIX (KSAZ) - On Memorial Day, FOX 10 is highlighting a local veteran who just graduated college, started a family, but almost didn't make it.
Brandon Corrales was able to overcome near-death experiences and tremendous obstacles on his way to graduation and starting a family.
College graduation is one of the greatest days of a person's life, and for Corrales, it almost didn't happen.
"This means the world to me," said Corrales. "I didn't even see myself coming home from Iraq at all."
Corrales is a Flagstaff native, and his military story started in 2009. Shortly after enlisting and basic training, he was headed to Iraq, and it wasn't long into his deployment when the unthinkable happened in February of 2010.
"I got hit by a Molotov Cocktail," said Corrales. "I was manning my .50 caliber machine gun. Basically, we were passing under a bridge and an insurgent located on the bridge, threw a Molotov Cocktail. You light the cloth, throw the Molotov Cocktail, and it explodes on contact, which engulfed my entire body in flames. I was on fire for a good 15-20 seconds, just stop, dropping and rolling. That was my first exposure to real war."
Some scars remain, and the ordeal earned Corrales a Purple Heart. A quick recovery, however, saw Corrales back in the Middle East, and again in harm's way.
"On mother's day of 2010, we're operating out of a checkpoint, checkpoint 4 in Mosul, Iraq. It was about 4, 4:30 in the morning. the sun was coming up. I was manning a guard tower," said Corrales. "I was on my .240 bravo machine gun, and a suicide bomber, a car bomber, pulled up to the checkpoint and blew himself up right outside the checkpoint."
The explosion led to a traumatic brain injury.
"I was out for 15-30 seconds," said Corrales. "I came to. Hearing the radio, my sergeant asking, 'are you OK?' Gunfire, hearing shots left and right."
PTSD from the incident led to a medical discharge in 2013. Corrales, now back in Arizona, faced a choice: do nothing, or get help and go to school.
It wasn't easy.
"The traumatic brain injury has made going to school very, very difficult, because it takes me a lot longer to process this information," said Corrales.
Two years of hard work at Yavapai College led to an Associate's Degree. Then, it was on to NAU. Still, Corrales had to overcome obstacles. He now had a family and children to provide for.
He began working as much as he could as a personal trainer while going to school, but there were no excuses, just a commitment to getting the job done.
"This was a team effort between my wife, my kids, my mother and father who live down the street from me and my team of providers at the VA," said Corrales.
Beyond his medals, his honors, and his awards, Corrales has been able to bring his traumatic experiences full circle. The Molotov Cocktail hit him February 12, 2010, but the day means more than just that for Corrales.
"February 12 of 2011 is when I proposed to my wife," said Corrales. "It became a happy day and sad day, It was my alive day, as we call it."
This past Mother's Day weekend, Corrales was honored at the NAU graduation ceremony. The date used to be when he remembered a suicide bomber in Iraq. Now, it will be different.
"On one hand, I have to remember what happened to me in 2010, but now I can look back on 2018 and remember this is the date I graduated college," said Corrales, who has accepted a teaching position with NAU teaching fitness courses, while he weighs pursuing his Master's Degree and possibly a Doctorate in Public Health.