RICHMOND — Brandon Lawson was feeling good.
At the bottom of the stairs, George W. Bush stopped to speak to well-wishers.
“I still felt great,” Lawson says.
With a Secret Service agent in tow, Bush began walking toward the helicopter.
“Still felt good,” Lawson says.
For six years after graduating from high school in Knoxville, Tenn., however, Lawson was a U.S. Marine. The highlight of that time was his attachment to Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). Based in Quantico, Va., HMX-1 is responsible, among other things, for all helicopter transportation by the president.
Nine years later, Lawson vividly recalls his feelings during his first assignment with President Bush.
With the leader of the free world only seconds from climbing on the helicopter, the responsibility the young Marine was about to assume hit him like a tractor-trailer.
“He got about 10 feet away, and I was like ‘I don’t feel so good,’” Lawson says.
That first flight President Bush took on a helicopter with Lawson as crew chief went fine. It would be the first of some 20 times in 2007 and ’08 in which Lawson felt “a little bit of relief” after his helicopter safely transported the POTUS.
An unlikely Marine
Had we looked in on the 2004 graduating class of South-Doyle High School, Lawson would have seemed a most unlikely United States Marine.
He was 5-foot-4, 140 pounds. “My body type was certainly an outlier, obviously,” Lawson says. Yet through the grueling test that is Marine boot camp, Lawson learned size was not his prime impediment.
What almost derailed his aspirations of attending Naval Aircrew Candidate School was that he wasn’t much of a swimmer.
At that time, the Marine Corps had four levels of swim qualifications. Lawson cleared only swim qual 4 (the lowest level) in basic training. He needed to pass swim qual 2 to make it through Aircrew Candidate School.
So after Lawson had completed Marine Combat Training, the master gunnery sergeant in charge of Aircrew Candidate School pulled him aside.
“He said, ‘You don’t want to do this,’” Lawson recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to make this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’”
The exchange ended with the sergeant vowing to “swim you until you die,” Lawson says.
When Lawson arrived at Aircrew Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla., he was given one week to master the water skills needed to advance.
“It wasn’t pretty. At times, it was embarrassing,” Lawson says. “There were times it was like, ‘You have to throw me the flotation device.’ But I just kept going.”
To pass swim qual 2, Lawson had to make it through a simulated water rescue exercise in which you were dunked underwater in the facsimile of a helicopter fuselage, had to free yourself and then swim to a life raft.
“When I was ‘simulated rescued,’ that was a great moment,” Lawson says. “I was like ‘All right, I just might make it through this.’”
After he had completed flight school, Lawson received a coveted assignment — selection for HMX-1.
“The president’s transport is obviously a big part of it,” Lawson says. “But it’s not just the pomp and circumstances. We are also part of the emergency evacuation (plan) for the president of the United States. That’s what we were there for. And we were (where the president was) whether we were flying the president or not. I went on a lot of detachments where we never saw him.”
As crew chief on Marine One, Lawson was the “on-board expert mechanic. You help (the pilots) a lot with emergency procedures and different things like that,” he said.
From the Marines to football
After the intensity of being in the Marines, just taking college classes made Lawson feel like he was running on idle. “My operational tempo had been through the roof,” he says.
Lawson sought out a civilian career that ran at an accelerated pace. Through the girlfriend of a friend, he got an interview for a volunteer job with the UT football program under head coach Derek Dooley. That eventually turned into a full-time position on UT’s recruiting staff. Among other duties, Lawson created and managed prospect film and databases.
Wanting to step out and take a risk, Lawson left UT in 2014 to become Middle Tennessee State’s director of player personnel. Yet when Eastern hired Elder to replace Dean Hood after last season, Lawson gave up his job at MTSU of the FBS to come to EKU of the FCS as director of recruiting.
“It was the opportunity to go with somebody who I felt like has a very, very high ceiling,” Lawson said of Elder.
At EKU, the former Marine One crew chief is tasked with organizing all of Eastern’s football recruiting efforts — planning visits, keeping the school’s recruiting board current, helping the coaching staff prioritize which prospects to offer scholarships.
“I wanted him here because he and I share the same vision for how a recruiting department needs to be set up,” Elder said.
The 43rd president “was very personable. He spoke to a lot of people,” Lawson says of Bush. “We enjoyed being around him and his attitude toward the military. He was always very appreciative of us.”
Once, Lawson was flying with the president and Laura Bush when overcast weather created the need for the helicopter to do maneuvers to create space between it and other aircraft flying with it.
As the first lady read a book, President Bush noticed the deviation from normal flight procedure and instructed his military aide to find out what was going on.
The pilots explained to the aide that it was cloudy and they were creating space while going back to the airport. The aide tried to relay that to the president — who couldn’t hear him.
As the military aide’s attempted explanations to the president grew louder, the first lady eventually had enough.
Says Lawson: “Finally, she slams her book down and goes ‘WE”RE GOING BACK TO THE AIRPORT.’”
Suffice to say, the president heard her.
“The whole (aircraft) is just dead silent,” Lawson says. “I’m just looking out my window. Two or three minutes later, I hear the president: ‘So, what are you reading?’”