Jeff Bramstedt was working out at a local gym as part of an intense regimen to keep himself fit for service as a Navy SEAL when a stranger tentatively approached him.
“He said, ‘I know that God has something very unique and special but I’m apprehensive to talk to you about it because you look a little intense.”
That intensity was part personality, part training. By that time, Bramstedt had already completed his third deployment.
“I wasn’t that approachable,” Bramstedt said of the 1997 incident. “I was that guy (who) every single person that walks up to me I know everything about them as they get close to me. I know if they know how to fight. I can tell by how they walk. I can tell where their head is at. I can tell if they are a force to be reckoned with or if they are going to be easy to walk through. Everybody is an adversary. Everybody, before they prove themselves different. That’s the headspace I was in.”
Seeing that Bramstedt wasn’t going to rip apart his limbs, the stranger continued.
“God is going to use you in the film industry,” the man said. “He’s going to give you a platform in the film industry to reach literally thousands of people. He is also going to give you a voice. You are going to be able to stand in front of millions of people sharing the gospel.”
Bramstedt listened with cool detachment. He was enjoying his elite, but spontaneous, Navy experience too much to even consider what the man in front of him was saying.
As a young adult, Bramstedt hadn’t given much thought to the military as a career option.
“I was in college and hating it like every 19 year old,” he said of his pre-enlistment days.
But then his younger brother called. He had just signed up with the Navy after graduating from high school.
“He said, ‘Hey man, there’s this group of guys in the Navy and they do everything we did as kids, only it’s legal,”’ Bramstedt said, laughing and recalling his childhood penchant for playing with fire, blowing things up (including his GI Joes), and dismantling firecrackers.
“Before you knew it I was in SEAL training,” he said.
The grueling training resulted in just 23 graduates out of an original class of 143. Just 16 percent succeeded.
Then there was the matter of faith.
Bramstedt, adopted at six months by a young Lutheran pastor and his wife, was raised as a Christian but never really pursued Jesus on his own. (His father later left the pastorate to support his family as a mechanic).
“There was a miss in there somehow,” he said. “I knew who Jesus was. I knew about the Holy Spirit. I understood the Trinity. I didn’t understand destiny and I definitely didn’t understand the enemy, and part of getting through everything you got to get through in life is knowing that in your battle space is another side to this thing. There is an enemy who definitely wants you dead. I didn’t understand spiritual warfare.”
Quickly assessing his spiritual life, Bramstedt decided it didn’t match the bold words of this stranger so, exercising the same confidence he displayed in SEAL training, Bramstedt told the man that he had no interest in Hollywood or speaking in public.
The man politely said OK and walked away. As Bramstedt later discovered, though, the battle was not over. As it turned out, his workout partner had given Bramstedt’s phone number to the man, Greg Wark. At the time, Wark was a San Diego-based pastor, counselor and chaplain.
Apparently the intense demeanor that caused Wark to proceed cautiously with Bramstedt at the gym didn’t transmit through the telephone. Wark began calling him two to three times a week. He interrupted parties. He often called as Bramstedt was using his “targeting” skills to chase women. Bramstedt told Wark that he was infringing on his style.
“Three months later things in my life started circling the drain enough to where I started to feel it was time for me to call this guy back and pick up what he was putting down,” the former SEAL said. “I haven’t looked back since.”
Wark mentored his new convert and Bramstedt seemed to thrive and began helping his spiritual dad with Force, the pastor and chaplain’s military outreach.
A year after his conversion to Christianity, Collins received an unlikely phone call from Hollywood seeking his particular skill set as a stunt double for a movie about a Navy diver. After securing permission from his commanding officer, Bramstedt said he spent four days as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s stunt double in the 2000 film “Men of Honor.”
Sixteen years later he’s still doing stunt work, with his most recent project expected to be showcased with this fall’s release of “Deepwater Horizon,” based on the catastrophic 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In a departure from his previous film work, “Deepwater Horizon” is the first movie in which he has a speaking part.
“You make one stunt coordinator happy and you start getting phone calls,” the Point Loma resident said. “It’s been an interesting evolution, and on top of that being out and traveling.”
The timing of the Hollywood work proved providential as it filled a void after Bramstedt was medically discharged from the service in 2004. It was also a welcome diversion after his wife left him in 2008.
“I came home and the house was empty,” he said.
In true SEAL fashion, Bramstedt pressed on, or so he thought. Four years later he came face to face with demons he didn’t even know were there.
“I woke up one morning and felt like a thousand pounds was on my chest,” Bramstedt said. “I literally couldn’t breathe and it was hard for me to get out of bed.”
Also concerned about his lack of focus, and steeled by his steadfast resolution not to do “pity parties,” he called his mentor, Wark.
“He said, ‘I’ve been waiting 15 years for this conversation.’ I’m like, ‘15 years and you couldn’t just tell me then?” Bramstedt said, a slight chuckle defying his serious facade. “It’s one of those things where God has to bring you to a certain place before you can deal with it.”
Wark referred his protégé to a local counselor and, after three intensive sessions over three days, Bramstedt said he was free of emotional pain, including the four years of “seething” he had suppressed from his wife’s abandonment.
“I had to step back and re-evaluate my life,” he said. “The rejection that happened at the hands of women just set me off.”
Although he loved his adoptive parents, there was anger toward his biological mother that he hadn’t acknowledged.
“It was as if God was showing me what was really happening,” said Bramstedt, the father of three.
His counselor helped him to process the truth: his biological mother had shunned pressure to abort her pregnancy and, by putting her son up for adoption, she had ensured that her son would be able to escape the racial tension and broken relationships of her East St. Louis neighborhood.
“I was still questioning that, and the rejection was still there and then when my wife left it made it even worse,” he said. “I wasn’t any good. I wasn’t healthy. After I forgave my mom—forgave her in the context that I wasn’t holding something against her, just releasing that out of my life—it seemed like all of a sudden everything started falling into place.
“It was as though God was saying that ‘rejection is the red carpet that the enemy will use to roll all this bad stuff into your life. Stinking thinking, and bad behavior and anger. All this stuff is present because you are trying fix something that only I have the keys to fix.’”
A week after the intense counseling session, Bramstedt receive another unexpected telephone call. This one was from Jonathan Bock of Grace Hill Media, a Los Angeles marketing and production company specializing in faith-friendly movies.
Bock was looking for someone to help write curriculum for Life of Valor, a supplemental Bible study produced in conjunction with the 2012 release of “Act of Valor,” about a covert mission by Navy SEALs to recover a kidnapped intelligence agent. Bock also wanted Bramstedt to co-host a video promoting the project.
“That video got released and it started blowing up,” he said. “That year I was on stage 200 times speaking. It really got shot out of a cannon. I’m doing exactly what Greg prophesied over me that day in the gym. Everything is happening.”
After that project concluded, Bramstedt acquired the Life of Valor name and website, which he used to start his own military ministry after Wark moved to Nashville.
Launched in 2012, Life of Valor is a men’s ministry that offers large single-day conferences (including one in the Philippines later this year), church-based seminars called Tactical Fatherhood Initiatives and an intensive three-day Warrior Weekend Adventure in which a group of 15 or so men spend extended time on a shooting range, tactical driving course and skydiving.
“It’s a really fun, action-packed weekend,” he said.
While the ministry specializes in adventures, Bramstedt said the goal is to point everything back to the life-changing power offered through Jesus, a power that goes well beyond a salvation experience in an effort draw men into their full calling.
“From a state-of-the-union perspective on men, it took us 200-years-plus to get to where we are now… over-comfortable, over-scheduled, over-caffeinated, over-medicated, to where we are not (allowing) our children—the next generation of believers, who are going to pick up the mantle after us, especially our young boys—to be the leaders they are supposed to be,” he said.
Compounding the issue, he said, is most men report having few close friends, which results in a barren life without trust, confession and accountability.
A key to reversing that trend is building community, which Bramstedt said he tries to do at each men’s gathering. But building community requires vulnerability. Bramstedt tries to model this by sharing his own experiences.
“I stand before guys and say my credibility isn’t because I have the P-word (for pastor) before my name,” he said. “My credibility isn’t in any of my education. My credibility isn’t in any of my military career. My credibility isn’t in any of my film stuff. That’s not where my credibility is.
“My credibility is in this: I hold my hand up and say ‘Who here has been rejected? Who here has had anxiety? Who here is apprehensive and nervous and afraid and in fear of the future? Who here has been divorced? Who here has been abused and pushed around and discounted and cast aside and disregarded? Yeah? Well, OK, hands have been going up and down this entire time that I’ve been saying these things, but my hand has been up the entire time. I’ve lived 65 years in my 45 years of being on this planet.’”
In early January, Bramstedt realized a long-time dream when he purchased Skydive San Diego in Jamul, where Life of Valor has hosted the parachuting element of its Warrior Weekend program.
“Where I come from some people call it crazy, some people call it nuts,” the adventurist said. “I call it stepping on out in faith. Doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing, which is calculated and (taking) chances, but I call it faith because I’ve been thinking about it, working on it, praying about it for seven years.”
The business not only meshes well with his SEAL experience and the Warrior Weekend adventures, but Bramstedt said it will also help to underwrite the growth of Life of Valor as he and his business partner have vowed to tithe into the men’s ministry. That means time he would normally have to spend fundraising can now be diverted back into the ministry’s programming.
“Things continue to climb,” he said. “I’m just amazed every day at what God is doing with Life of Valor. It’s literally growing on its own. But it all happened as a result of me being obedient and doing what God asked—and really, quite frankly, required me to do.
“He requires of all men to get rid of their junk, to take authority over the stuff that’s in their heart. The stuff that is holding them back. The stuff that the enemy has designed and planted so that it can grow and produce fruit. When you taste that fruit it’s bitter and it’s nasty, and when you eat that it really impedes on what God has in store, what God wants you to do, what God has for you. That can affect your destiny. Now what I’m doing is walking men through the exact same things I went through.”
— by Lori Arnold
Photos by Kevin McGrew Photograph
Related article: Adventurous gospel