I joined the Air Force fresh out of high school. The day I left for bootcamp, my best friend sat next to me sobbing because we were about to leave our small town in southwest Iowa. I couldn’t wait to get away.
My first duty station was in Rapid City, South Dakota. I made friends easily and got involved in local rodeos. I even had my own cowboy boots and a hat and a pair of leather chaps. In the arena, I’d tie up the legs of those steers and hear the crowd cheer. Their praise provided all the love and approval I needed.
At the start of my military career, I worked in a parachute shop with a very religious young man. The more I talked to him and people from his church, the more I felt pulled in that direction.
I gave my heart to God and became a born-again Christian on July 11, 2001.
Not long after my conversion, I was relocated to the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, where I found a small storefront church. It was different than what I was used to.
They played only old-time hymns, accompanied by a piano. None of the members were supposed to be watching any TV. If someone was considering a job outside of ministry, they had to ask the elders and the pastors for permission.
Women wore skirts down to their ankles and couldn’t cut their hair or wear makeup. Men wore suits. I had to throw away my cowboy hat and leather chaps.
I wanted to be a good person. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. After all, that’s what I always did best—make others happy.
Soon, I heard how the church leaders had been praying for someone young and passionate to come help them. Then I showed up.
“God called you to be a pastor,” they’d tell me. “We always needed someone like you.”
Hearing them say this was like having a stadium chant my name. Bran-den! Bran-den! How could I say no?
After a couple weeks, they had me helping lead church services, and I thought, maybe this was why I got stationed in Alaska. Maybe I was supposed to serve this church.
Every day, as soon as I got off work, I would spread the Good News by “door knocking to save souls,” or I would go to Bible study or to the church services held almost daily. Whenever that collection plate was full, the elders were especially happy with me.
I began to regard the pastors and elders as men who spoke the very words of God. I believed them. I trusted them. I loved them. My dad wasn’t around much when I was growing up, and now, I had father figures who showered me with attention.
So when they urged me to become a pastor, I did. Two years later, they shocked me with their next command: they wanted me to get married.
This church only had eight members—with only one single woman.
The ministers looked around and said, “Yup, she’s the one God picked for you.” I knew that they were wrong. But no one ever went against their wishes.
When I met the woman I was supposed to marry, I told her that we should just be friends. I hardly knew her. I wasn’t attracted to her. We had nothing in common, and I got this bad feeling about her that I couldn’t shake. After we met, she went to the church leaders and told on me.
During the Sunday service, I was called out from the pulpit for being sinful and not following God’s will. My face grew hot and red as the preacher—in his suit and tie—looked right at me. I was so ashamed. I had disappointed the people I loved.
The pastor and his wife told me they knew God’s will better than I could at 23 years old and that I had better beg this woman for forgiveness.
A couple weeks later, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Surrounded by the six other church members, I married a stranger. The whole day I felt sick to my stomach.
I wasn’t allowed to tell my family anything until two days before the wedding. I’d been warned that “the devil might use them to break us up.”
The verbal abuse began just days into the marriage. Simple things, like going to the grocery store to get something for her, turned into a full evening of her screaming, “That’s the wrong loaf of bread! Why can’t you do anything right?”
Everything that went wrong in her life—she blamed on me.
If quoting a Bible verse didn’t help her get her way, she’d lean on her other standby and say, “If you really loved God and loved me, you’d actually do things right."
Divorce was a sin, an instant condemnation to hell. I stayed in the marriage and closed off my heart.
When I had the opportunity to leave the military and join the ministry full-time, I took it. I moved to the Pacific Northwest and went to Bible College. Despite my miserable home life, I kept seeking validation from the church leaders. So, when they told me to become a missionary pastor in England, I went.
But soon the church in England was failing. Our numbers were dwindling when many of our young military members got orders to switch duty stations. I had no money to send to the church’s headquarters, let alone feed myself. I owned nothing but the clothes on my back. Most days, the woman I married was too depressed to get out of bed. Much of the missionary work fell on me.
Late one night, all my failings played before me like a movie. I snuck out of the bedroom, headed for the kitchen and pulled out a knife, the only way out.
But then, a moment of clarity washed over me and a promise of hope whispered: Get out of this cult now—before it’s too late. You can turn your life around.
When my term in England ended, the church leaders asked me to stay. I said no, got on a plane and went back to the Midwest, back home. Once I settled in, I got divorced and started buying whatever loaf of bread I damn well pleased.
I’m still angry that I let it go on for a decade. But, I see now that letting others have power over you, it starts small—with sweet lies laced with just enough truth—until little by little, you’re not on the same path anymore.
Today, the love I give out to make others happy is finally returned, tenfold. I’m married to my first true wife, the one I chose, the one who is my soulmate and who has given me so much healing and hope. I’m a father to five children and happier than I’ve ever been, making my own choices and owning my life.
Branden Bullington works as a recruiter and account manager for a travel nurse agency by day, and he’s a super-dad to five awesome kids by night. He’s also an Air Force veteran, having served in Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy.
Our next show is Friday, June 1 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Belonging.”
The show starts at 7 p.m. with live music. There will also be a community art project on display inspired by stories of standing out, fitting in and finding your way.
Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.