Mark Braley has spent his entire life protecting and serving others–as a member of the U.S. armed forces, an officer for the Norman Police Department, and now as the new veterans’ services coordinator for the Cleveland County Health Department. Plus, he’s gotten to blow up a lot of things along the way!
Originally from Ardmore, Braley graduated from Ardmore High School in 1985, then attended Oklahoma State University for three years before joining the Army in 1988. As a first sergeant with the B Battery A/158 Field Artillery, he was stationed out of Fort Bragg and took part in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield.
After leaving the service in 1991, Braley became a member of the Oklahoma National Guard, where he served for 20 additional years as an artilleryman, including an overseas combat tour as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He retired as a captain. Although he’s modest about his military achievements, his battlefield efforts to save wounded fellow soldiers earned him two Bronze Stars and three Army Commendation Medals, including one for valor.
Along the way, he also completed his degree in wildlife ecology, worked in that field for a while, and farmed. It was when he became a police dispatcher for Johnston County, however, that he found his calling.
In 1996 he joined the Norman Police Force, where he would also serve 20 years, retiring as a captain in 2016. “I did pretty much all of it–patrol, undercover narcotics, internal affairs. I headed up the SWAT team and the bomb squad,” Braley said. His military experience was obviously invaluable for these tasks, and just as with the military, the intensity and danger of the job was offset by the close ties with fellow officers.
“I stayed in for the same reason people get into the military to begin with,” he said. “The camaraderie is incredible. It sounds trite, but it’s true that you don’t really fight for your country so much as you fight for the guys on either side of you.”
Late last year, the Cleveland County Health Department approached Braley and asked him to help them start a new outreach initiative. Braley doesn’t provide one-to-one assistance; he’s there to put vets in touch with other services and individuals who can help them with their needs. It’s a pilot program that will hopefully be expanded to health departments across the state.
“I strive to be ‘the guy who knows the guy’,” Braley explained about his approach to the job. “I can do very little one-on-one, but what I try to do is reach out to organizations and to help vets find new opportunities.”
He’s also spearheading efforts to create programs that help larger groups of veterans, such as a recent forum that provided information about technical and financial assistance to veterans interested in becoming farmers. “We are still developing this program, and I’m thinking along the lines of ‘how can I help 30 or more vets at a time’?” he said.
As a single parent, Braley accepted the newly created position as a way to provide a more consistent schedule for his three teenage children, but also as a way to provide yet another avenue of help to his fellow veterans. “He’s perfect for this job, with his prior military background,” said Cleveland County Commissioner Darry Stacy. “That’s what first sergeants do–they protect the troops.”