Here is one thing I know about war: some soldiers die on the field and some soldiers die years later from the wounds and trauma their service caused their bodies and minds.
Here is another thing I know about war: its effects are no different for soldiers’ families. I was reminded of that this week when my aunt, Deidra Brown of Jamestown passed away 15 years, 7 months and 27 days after her son, Spc. Philip “Phil” Brown. There is no doubt that Deidra too, is a casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom because when Phil died, part of her did too, and she never recovered.
Deidra was a cool aunt with a kind heart. She was happy and knew how to make anything fun. Deidra was the kind of person you just wanted to be around. She came from a big family and learned while growing up to share, be kind, and listen – and if you were around her, you learned that too.
Deidra was a first-grade teacher at St. John’s Academy when she married my uncle, Dick and all 37 kids in her class were the ring bearers and flower girls at their wedding. Because I was the “real” flower girl, and also five years old, I wasn’t too happy to have so much competition. But, Deidra told me she loved her students and wanted to be surrounded by all the children she loved on her wedding day. I heard her, and I will never forget the lesson she taught me that day – give more love to many, don’t save it for one.
My aunt always included kids in her fun – Deidra taught many of my cousins and I how to rollerblade and took us on long hikes around the reservoir. She was also Jamestown’s most prolific garage sale shopper, experience she used to teach us the street names of our hometown. She never missed church and made sure we didn’t either – even if you were at the state basketball tournament and really didn’t want to go. I could never figure out how she memorized Mass times in cities across North Dakota, but she did.
After her son Phil died in 2004, Deidra was never quite the same. Her body was sick. She battled illness, infections, and ailments too numerous to list. She was in and out of hospitals and appointments. She didn’t love to be around huge crowds anymore and preferred small groups with folks she knew. She poured her energy into serving others through our Basilica of St. James and being involved in as many veterans and military organizations she could, but the sadness that enveloped her was constant and you could feel it. Phil’s death left a hole that was never filled.
In North Dakota serving your country is a proud tradition. Soldiers from North Dakota and other rural communities like mine make up just about half of the military. More than 44 percent of soldiers come from the Heartland, and rural Americans are 20 percent more likely to enlist than big city dwellers. My family is no different.
My great-grandfather, Adam Klein, received the Silver Star in World War I, and both of my grandfathers served during World War II – Jack Brown in the Army in West Berlin and Joe Gould in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor. Three uncles joined both the Army and the Air Force during and shortly following the Vietnam War. And of course, my cousin Phil was awarded a purple heart, bronze star, and the ND Legion of Merit Award for his service in Iraq.
The impact of war is heavy and long. It doesn’t end with the soldier. Losing my Aunt Deidra this week reminded me of this. She served our country as a gold star mother. She will be missed by my family, my church, my community and the countless lives she touched. She signed off on her emails with a quote that read: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” She will forever be right about that.