ST. GEORGE — While Memorial Day is set aside to remember all United State’s service members who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country with their life, it also acknowledges the sacrifices of those who have returned from overseas deployments, many of whom may not be counted among the dead but who carry the memories of death with them almost every day.
For many teenagers throughout Southern Utah, high school graduation marks the time in life to prepare for college and a career, but for others, it’s about another path in life.
For Brittany Lee, college just wasn’t her thing. When all of her friends were going off to universities across the country, she found herself at the age of 18 driving around one day and wandering into a military recruiting office.
Eventually making her way into the U.S. Naval office, Lee pondered many jobs, but none lured her away from civilian life. When the recruiter mentioned hospital corpsman as a job, it was a “light bulb moment.”
“Hospital corpsman, that sounds so familiar,” she said. “Where did I hear that before?”
Soon she made the connection. Lee’s grandfather landed on “Bloody Omaha” as a corpsman during the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion for the liberation of Europe during World War II.
Lee said she knew the decision was made after that connection.
“This is what I have to be,” she said. “There was no option.”
Lee served in the Navy from 2009-15, attaining the rank of Chief Petty Officer Second Class. Her first duty station was stateside for a unit that received wounded military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a tough time, Lee recalled.
“My initial reaction was anger,” she said. “These were kids that were 18, 19, 20, and they are in the unit as double, triple and quadruple amputees.”
Lee said their lives were permanently changed.
“It wasn’t only about the physical wounds but psychological wounds,” she said. “I had to learn really quickly how to wake them up in the middle of the night. You couldn’t get close to them because they would wake up swinging and screaming.”
Although rewarding, life in a hospital lit the spark to do something more, to be a part of something larger, she said.
“For me, it made me get out and do something about it, so I started pushing for deployments,” Lee said. “It became especially hard when it started to be my friends that I had gone to boot camp or school with. They were now in front of me, and they were my patients. That was absolutely heartbreaking.”
Almost three years after enlisting Lee deployed to Afganistan.
“I knew I had to be there, but it was devastating to see so much death,” she said. “IEDs (improvised explosive device) took so many lives and left so many without arms and legs. It wasn’t just physical trauma but emotional. Between the stress of combat and being viewed as an invading (foreign) force, everyday life was hard to endure for everyone.”
For U.S. Army Sargent Michael Brown, a veteran of Afghanistan and an infantry soldier, deployment is a wonderful memory, something that “pushes you to the edge” and which he says is now “absolutely” missed.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said.
But the threat of death – the possibility of being another one of those remembered on Memorial Day – was often over his head, and he still carries many of the dead with him to this day.
Enlisting at the age of 18, Brown began his military career in the Army Reserve as a surgical technician but soon found that he wanted more.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger,” he said. “I wanted to be at the front line. I was tired of being with support. I was tired of being one of the background guys. I wanted to do the whole package and not do the Army halfway.”
Hesitant to talk about his 11-month deployment, no R&R and combat patrols six days a week, all Brown will say about his experience is that that “you name it, we lived through it.”
The biggest challenge Brown will talk about was facing terrorists.
“We fought those guys at least once a week, and if we weren’t dealing them directly we knew they were there,” he said.
For many Afghanistan combat veterans sometimes it was hard to tell friend from foe. Even young children were capable of violence, he said, recalling someone in another battalion who was killed by a child with a knife.
“After that, I kept the kids at a distance.”
Even seemingly friendly forces could pose a threat, Brown added.
“We didn’t deal so much with the Afghan National Army,” he said. “They seemed good, but we always kept them at arm’s length too because just like that they could turn a gun on you. You always had to keep your eyes out and have positive control of a room or an area. On the turn of a dime, they could start shooting.”
When Brown retired from the Army in 2017, he returned home and mashed down the nightmares of war.
“We’re infantry,” he said. “We’re not allowed to show our emotions. We’re not allowed to deal with things. Since I’ve gotten out I adopted a service dog for emotional support. He’s kind of like my little buddy. Still, I don’t want to deal with my problems directly. I’ve been offered to talk to people, and I just don’t want to. I will deal with my emotions and my problems myself.”
Brown said he has learned to cope by putting his experiences in boxes, putting them away emotionally and bring them out from time to time to remember.
“Every once and a while I remember my buddy who committed suicide a few months after we got back from our deployment from Afghanistan,” Brown said. “He had some pretty dark demons, like a lot of us did. Every year on the anniversary of this death I drink a beer to his life.”
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