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Nick Brantley: An angel with wings

AHOSKIE – As an inquisitive youngster, Thomas Nicholas “Nick” Brantley would perhaps gaze into the heavens to watch a soaring bird or an aircraft streaking across the sky, all the time wondering what it would feel like to experience the thrill of flight.

Now, Brantley is staring down from the heavens, thankful for the opportunity to fulfill his dream of flying.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, Brantley, 26, will be memorialized in a service at First Baptist Church of Ahoskie. He died Sept. 24 when his Navy Seahawk helicopter went down off the North Carolina coast during a training exercise. Interment, with military honors, will follow at the Ahoskie Cemetery.

Despite the short time he spent on Earth, Brantley made a great impact on the people he met.

“Nick was just a good old country boy that made friends very quickly,” Navy Commander Paul Essig said. “He was a great guy, a good pilot and a good officer. People really liked working with Nick.”

Essig, now assigned to the Pentagon, was Lt. Brantley’s commanding officer at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, FL.

“Nick and his wife Mary Ruth were very active in the squadron’s family activities at Mayport,” Essig noted. “They were such a great couple. You didn’t have to be around them for a long period of time to feel the love they had for each other. But that was Nick…a great guy who got along with everyone and a person that everybody loved.”

Brantley was quick to climb the ladder of success in the U.S. Navy upon graduating in 2001 from Virginia Tech.

He was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy and immediately began his flight training in Pensacola, FL. He excelled as a pilot and flew both fixed-wing and rotary-winged aircraft.

After receiving his Wings of Gold, he reported to Mayport for his initial training in the SH-60B Seahawk. Upon completion of training, he received the Seahawk Award as the top student in the Fleet Replacement Squadron.

He reported to HSL-44 the “Swampfoxes,” at Mayport in December of 2003. He served as Assistant Operations Officer and Naval Warfare Publications Library Custodian, receiving the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his outstanding performance. He served as the Administration Officer for Detachment TEN “Killaz” in support of Standing Naval Forces Atlantic West aboard the USS Simpson in 2004. After deployment he earned the qualification of Helicopter Aircraft Commander and began workups as the Detachment Maintenance Officer of Detachment TEN, the “Heavy Hitters” earlier this year.

“Nick was a quick study in a lot of areas,” Commander Essig said. “He loved to fly, so much to the point that he would be the first to put his name on the flight schedule.”

While Essig emphasized Brantley’s dedication to the Navy, he added that Nick never forgot where he came from.

“Nick was proud of being a northeastern North Carolina boy,” Essig said.

One of Brantley’s most loyal friends growing up in the Center Grove community near Ahoskie was Brian Overton.

“Nick and I were like brothers; we spent nearly each and every day together while growing up,” Overton recalled. “He was a top notch guy.”

Both youngsters matured into excellent high school athletes – Nick at Ridgecroft School where he played basketball (two-time team MVP) and soccer while Brian was a three-sport standout (football, basketball, baseball) at Hertford County High School where he now serves as an assistant coach.

“We really supported each other in athletics,” Overton said. “It always meant a lot when Nick told me I had a good game.”

The news of Brantley’s death was a hard pill for Overton to swallow.

“About the only consolation I had was that Nick died doing what he loved, flying,” Overton noted. “He was a heck of a pilot and had just reached Aircraft Commander status. That made me very proud of my best friend. He had such a bright future with the Navy.”

That future was jumpstarted at Ridgecroft where Brantley was the Valedictorian of his 1997 graduating class.

“Nick was a complete student, academically gifted and also excelled in athletics,” Doug Cobbs, Ridgecroft’s longtime athletic director, said. “He was well-respected by those here at Ridgecroft as well as the coaches in our conference. We and they admired him for the same reasons, his hard work and dedication both on and off the playing field.”

Cobbs also was impressed by Brantley following his graduation.

“He came back here a few times and spoke to our students about what life was like in the Navy,” Cobbs recalled. “I admired him for that effort.”

Like Overton, Cobbs was also shocked to learn of Lt. Brantley’s death.

“It’s such a tragic loss for his family,” Cobbs said. “Our hearts still go out to the Brantley family. We also feel his loss here at Ridgecroft because Nick was and always will remain a member of our family.”

While growing up in the Roanoke-Chowan area, Brantley was actively involved in church activities at First Baptist of Ahoskie. There, he made friends with Danny Vancil, the church’s Director of Music.

“Nick was a wonderful young man who was talented in many areas, including music,” Vancil said. “He was always so sure of himself, the signs of being a true leader.”

Vancil said Brantley was involved in the church Youth Choir and the Youth Handbell Choir.

“He was a very good soloist,” Vancil recalled. “But what impressed me the most about Nick was that he was always committed to his efforts and was an extremely cooperative young man.”

Vancil added, “His leadership capabilities were admired my many, especially those younger than he as they looked to Nick as a role model.”

Even after leaving the safety net of home, Brantley continued to excel. At Virginia Tech, from where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications in 2001, Brantley served in the Corp of Cadets. He was the 3rd Battalion Cadet Sergeant Major his junior year. One year later he was selected to command the entire Virginia Tech 3rd Battalion.

The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets have established a scholarship in Brantley’s honor. Those wishing to make a donation can make a check out to the Lt. Thomas “Nick” Brantley Scholarship and mail to: Virginia Tech University Development, 201 Pack Building (0336), Blacksburg, Va., 24060, Attention: Corps of Cadets.

For more information about the scholarship fund, contact Dave Spracher at 800-533-1144.

Memorial contributions may also be made to the First Baptist Church of Ahoskie Youth Group, 312 West Main Street, Ahoskie, NC, 27910.

In the meantime, we can all become a young, wide-eyed Nick Brantley and stare into the heavens. There, if we’re lucky, we might be able to catch a glimpse of an angel with Navy wings.