Screaming Eagles Through Time
Losing Pfc. Brown


BY JULIAN E. BARNES, U.S. News and World Report

Pfc. John E. Brown. Troy, Alabama.

BAGHDAD (20 April 2003) --John Eli Brown, private first class, 101st Airborne Division, was exactly the kind of guy the Army needed and who needed the Army. For two weeks, I traveled with Brown in an overstuffed four-seat humvee as we made our way from Najaf to Karbala and, finally, to Baghdad. Brown was the driver. I sat behind him. During our travels, we talked about his family, his favorite music, his prized pickup truck (a Ford Ranger Edge), his ambitions. After dropping out of high school at 17, Brown had worked odd jobs but decided he needed something more. So, he signed up for the Army and was assigned to the 101st--the "Band of Brothers."

Brown's job was to drive Capt. Paul Haverstick, the commander of the 101st's 2-44 Air Defense Artillery Battalion's Bravo Battery. Almost no one in the Army wants to be a driver. You have to listen for directions over the roar of the humvee's engine, then get chewed out when the instructions are misunderstood. Despite such problems, Haverstick and Brown liked each other. Both were Alabama boys, Haverstick from the northern part of the state, Brown from down south, a country town called Troy. During the long hours together in the humvee, Haverstick talked to Brown about going to college, becoming an officer. Brown began fantasizing about being the only ROTC cadet in Alabama with a combat patch. Haverstick was intense and driven, Brown likable and easygoing, a skinny 21-year-old with a big grin, always ready to help a soldier patch a radio or fixing other Joes up with smokes.

E-mail home. Soldiers have lots of stuff reporters don't over here--trucks, snacks, folding beds. Brown gave me chips and sodas and loaned me his cot. Reporters pretty much have just one thing soldiers don't, and that's a satellite phone. I let Brown use my E-mail account, and he sent his dad, Ed Brown, an account of a day he spent kicking in doors and raiding the house of a Baath Party official. His father is a Gulf War vet, and Brown was anxious to do him proud. I took a snapshot of Brown standing with his machine gun, which he had named Sarah. We sent the picture to his dad, but when I offered to E-mail it to his mom, Brown said no. Too warlike, he explained.

Bonnie Brown and her son were close. "You know, Mom, it makes me feel good to ride through these cities and [see] little kids . . . outside waving at you," he wrote, "and when you wave back, it's like they just seen Santa Claus." Bonnie Brown wrote back a few days later, and Brown let me see the E-mail. It was titled "Your mama loves her Owen." When I asked him why, he explained he was a mama's boy just like Owen, the character played by Danny DeVito in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. After trying unsuccessfully to reach her on the phone, he wrote, "I miss you so very much . . . I just need a mommy hug."

On April 13, Bonnie Brown sent a note to my account, but I had just left Brown's humvee. I wrote back saying I was no longer traveling with her son. "But just so you know," I wrote, "he is well, safe, sound, and relatively happy." The next morning, I told Brown his mother had sent her love and told him of my reply. He smiled.

A few hours later, Brown was in his humvee being ribbed by Haverstick and Lt. Jesse Freeman. Brown had tried to stick the two officers with pasta with Alfredo sauce, the absolute worst of the Army's meals ready to eat. As the three men talked, Spc. Thomas Foley III approached the humvee carrying what Freeman described afterward as a cone-shaped object. I had met Foley just once. He had shown me a note and a flower he had been given by an Iraqi child. The note said, in part, "Please help the people of Iraq." Foley handed the cone-shaped object to Brown. Like the boy from Wilfred Owen's World War I poem, "Arms and the Boy," Brown was fascinated by the tools of war. He had found four Iraqi bayonets and was planning to give them to family members as war trophies. Brown studied the cone-shaped object then and gave it back to Foley. According to Freeman, Foley played with the object or shook it. Suddenly, it blew up. Foley and Brown died instantly. Shrapnel cut Haverstick on his face and head and hit Freeman in his knee.

I spent nearly two weeks with Brown but interviewed him formally just once, two days before he died. Like many soldiers here, Brown said he wasn't really sure what this fight was about when he crossed the border into Iraq. But once he had made it to Baghdad, he said, he understood. He was in Iraq, he explained, to help the people. Soldiers aren't supposed to give food or water to Iraqis, because officers fear it will encourage kids to run into military convoys. But Brown wanted to do the humane thing. Last Sunday, while I was off interviewing infantry soldiers, Brown took water from his humvee and treats he had brought from home and gave them out to some hungry kids. "You know, Julian, you always miss the good stuff," he said when I got back. "Those kids took the water, measured some of it out equally, drank it, then took the rest home. It was amazing. You should have seen it."

I asked him if it still felt we were at war. "Yes and no," he said, noting that the military's role was shifting to the task of trying to make Iraq stable and peaceful. "It makes you feel good," he said. "It makes you feel you are serving a purpose."

Dog tags down. On April 16, in front of the corrugated steel shed where the 2-44 had established its headquarters, Capt. Jay West, the battalion chaplain, looked out at the soldiers of Bravo Battery. A few feet from the assembled soldiers sat the traditional Army field memorial: Kevlar helmets perched on M-4 rifles, dog tags hanging down. In front of the rifles were two photos. One was Foley with his flower and his letter. The other was the snapshot of Brown and the machine gun he named Sarah. In his sermon, West talked about an Iraqi man who had approached some soldiers a few days earlier, making a peace sign with his fingers. "America help, yes?" the man asked. "For that unknown Iraqi citizen," Chaplain West said, ". . . America was no longer a nameless, faceless entity. America's face was reflected in the Kevlar-covered faces of American soldiers . . . like Specialist Foley and Pfc. Brown."

As West concluded his remarks, 1st Sgt. Steven Duncan snapped to attention and called the roll. "Sergeant 1st Class Mumpower!" he shouted. "Here, 1st Sergeant!"

"Corporal Mueller," Duncan barked. "Here, 1st Sergeant!"

"Specialist Foley." Silence.

"Specialist Foley, Specialist Foley." Silence.

"Pfc. Brown, Pfc. Brown, Pfc. Brown."

For 10 seconds there was absolute silence.

Then taps began to play.



An honor guard carries the flag draped casket of Army PFC John Eli Brown to a memorial service in Troy, Ala., on Wednesday, April 23, 2003. Brown, 21, who served with the 101st Army Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell in Kentucky was killed inside his vehicle when a grenade exploded in Iraq on Monday, April 14. AP Photo/Dave Martin

Page created: 21 Apr 03