Another Memorial Day, come and gone. Another quiet, tormented trip to the Vietnam Wall to visit my brother. Another avalanche of emotions about the true meaning of just warfare and just peace and grand theories of human conflict inconveniently interrupted by death.
My brother was First Lieutenant Werner Curt Brown II, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, United States Army Republic of Vietnam. According to the official Army report, he died of small-arms gunfire in Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam, on September 29, 1968. He was twenty-three years old.
When my wife and our four children and I moved to northern Virginia in 2001, we began annual pilgrimages to the Wall on the last Monday in May, early in the morning before the crowds arrived. Part of me dreads these visits, but I do it out of a sense of obligation and respect for Curt and the other 58,000 men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. Lingering in front of Panel 42W, Row 39, for just a few silent minutes and gently running my finger across his name dredges up a haunting pain that lasts for days. In these melancholy moments, with my family by my side, I am reminded again that life is altogether beautiful and fragile and sometimes agonizing.
My memories of Curt are few—I was nine when he died—but burnished forever in my mind. Sitting with him in his green MG, the top down, racing over the winding roads in our hometown of Wilmington, Delaware; splashing through the surf and riding waves with him at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in the summer of 1968, just weeks before he shipped out; watching him rake leaves and then slip into a hammock in the front yard, a broad smile on his face. That’s how I remember him. He will remain twenty-three forever, just like an image on Keats’s Grecian urn: “Fair youth, beneath the trees, though canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.” All these memories come back to me as Memorial Day arrives. Every single, aching year.
A few weeks before he was killed, Curt wrote a letter to a good friend who was studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood at St. Meinrad Seminary. “Dear Rabbi,” he begins, with characteristic sarcasm. That letter, now a family heirloom, reveals his spirit:
Presently I am guarding an airstrip on the outskirts of Quang Ngai city. After almost 1 1/2 months of humping the boondocks they moved our company down here for a couple of weeks rest. Before coming here we could have ‘search and destroy’ missions all day long, get in firefights, dig foxholes, get mortared, and send out ambushes and reconnaissance patrols. The temperatures would range upwards of 110 degrees, it would rain all night, water was scarce and many times the only water available was rice paddy water. We ate C rations three times a day and smoked month-old cigarettes from those fortunate enough to save a carton or two. During [this] period we killed 35 VC [Viet Cong], 200 NV [North Vietnamese Army] and captured numerous weapons. We had only 14 wounded and 2 killed. Now things here are heavenly. We don’t walk, 2 hot meals a day, cold sodas and beer, air-conditioned movies, an occasional Red Cross girl or nurse, a tent over our heads and most important—nobody shooting at us. We should be here for at least 2 weeks depending on the 3rd enemy offensive being delayed. Not too much else is happening here.
This is the last known letter Curt wrote. Several days later he was killed.
All I remember of the funeral was a three-volley salute and men in uniform presenting a folded American flag to my sobbing mother. And one other thing. Sitting stone-faced in an upholstered armchair at the reception, I was approached by a freckled Southern boy, my friend Henry, who reached out and gently touched my hand. That simple gesture triggered my first tears over my big brother’s death. I ran upstairs and cried until everyone had left.
This summer my youngest son, age twenty-one, entered the Marines’ Officer Candidates School training in Quantico, Virginia. My wife and I will hold our breath for the next few years, just as we did when our eldest son served in the Marines from 2007 to 2011, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their service honors their Uncle Curt, whom they never knew. His legacy is his name on the Wall. But it is much more than that. It is a legacy of life, of love, of sacrifice.