Sponsored Content

Honoring the legacy of Air Force Fighter Pilot Capt Jeffrey Braden

Jessica Manfre Avatar

We have words for people who lose their spouses or their parents. But when a parent buries a child, there’s nothing in the English language that translates. This is a surviving mother’s story of her sweet boy and the legacy of life and goodness he left her to share with the world. 

Before he was a captain in the Air Force or flying around the world in a fighter jet – Jeffrey Braden was a mischievous boy. He was the baby of the family, following three sisters and loved to make his family laugh. 

“When he was in first grade his teacher told me a story of mumbling something under her breath in response to the kids’ antics, definitely something adult and hearing Jeff’s chuckle in the background. He was so smart and had such an incredible wit even at a young age,” his mom Laura Braden shared. 

On Saturdays, he and his siblings would make a list of what they wanted to “play” that day and since he was the youngest, Jeffrey’s choice was always last. So he’d suffer good naturally through dolls, house or barbies – but never made it to his pick: G.I. Joes.

Laura reminisced about little Jeff going with his dad on the bus to all the games when he was coaching high school basketball and football, something he did for 38 years until retiring. 

“His feet didn’t even touch the ground sitting on those benches,” Laura laughed. 

Jeffrey loved sports growing up and would play anything he could in middle and high school. Active in their family’s church youth group, you could always find him doing stand-up during their talent shows. Laura still has some of his written bits.

“My husband only got two weeks off each year so we’d travel through different national parks every summer. We’d hike, fish and camp as much as we could. Jeff was a force of nature,” she recalled. 

Jeffrey’s grandfather was a World War II veteran who’d served in the European theater. When Saving Private Ryan was released to theaters everywhere, he finally started talking about his experiences. Jeffrey would listen. When he was 13, his sister married a Navy officer. Then, he started thinking about his own service.

“He told us he was going to join and our response was to immediately tell him no. But then he told us if we didn’t support him and help apply to academies that he’d enlist the second he graduated from high school and turned 18,” Laura shared. “He said ‘Mom, I know you’ve been praying about this and I’ve been praying about this too. I have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in me as you. This is what God has called me to do and what I’ve been created to do is to serve our country.’ Well, how could I argue with that?”

The family attacked the applications with gusto and Jeffrey received an appointment to West Point Military Academy and the United States Air Force Academy. Though both schools were stellar options, he knew he wanted to fly. 

After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 2011, he met and married his wife Layne in between finishing flight school. Jeffrey realized his dream and became a F-22 pilot and was stationed in Hawaii not long after. The couple had a little girl and were pregnant with a son when he was sent to Guam.  

He was participating in Operation Valiant Shield, a biannual joint training exercise on the island. Jeffrey and some fellow officers decided to go enjoy the water on September 23, 2016, after the training was complete. Hours later, Laura received a phone call that he was found unresponsive in the water and couldn’t be revived, despite every effort.

“Jeff was a very accomplished snorkeler and deep sea diver and could hold his breath for long periods. He also liked to spearfish but he had not been certified as a scuba diver,” she shared. “When they told me he drowned it didn’t make sense, he was over six feet tall and the beach they were in when he was found was only 6 feet deep. It was later that I found out he’d gone buddy breathing further out with one of the officers who was scuba diving and Jeff embolized.”

The years after his death were what Laura described as a blur and never-ending nightmare. 

“Honestly it was really dark days for about five years. I’d wake up and wish I wasn’t there. Though I never thought about taking my own life I kept justifying that everyone would be fine without me. I wanted to go home to Jeff,” she explained. “I’d pray and have these conversations with God and I swear he spoke to me and told me I’d go home one day, but not until my chores on Earth were complete. He said I still had work to do.”

It was around this time that Laura was introduced to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and went to a retreat with other families. They got to go to an Academy game, meet the Falcon players and be with other survivors. 

“When I walked into the hotel and gave them my name the response was, ‘You’re Jeffrey Braden’s mom.’ Nobody had said his name or something like that to me in so long. I immediately broke down,” she said. “I feel like my husband and I finally got the closure we’d been missing.”

And she found her new purpose: walking with other families through their losses. As a peer mentor for TAPS, Laura now wakes up wondering who she’ll be able to help. 

“I want people to remember the dash. As survivors or even on Memorial Day we put a lot of focus on the death but we forget everything that happened in between, the dash. They were more than their last moments,” Laura explained. “It’s been almost eight years since he died and I’m working hard on myself. My prayer is that when I die and my daughters eulogize they’ll say I was never the same. I want them to share that I loved deeper, forgave faster and was more joyful.”

In Jeffrey’s Air Force Academy graduation yearbook he didn’t use the space to thank people or reminisce on his four years at school but rather to challenge the readers to live. His message was simple.  

“Carpe Diem.”

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.