GOULD: 20 years of all luxuries missed.

Last month, a friend of mine hosted a Taylor Swift album drop party and gave each of us Taylor’s famous “A lot going on at the moment” t-shirt. We all loved it and the opportunity to share with each other all the things we are trying to balance in our own lives – a long list of family events, birthday parties, work trips, and office meetings, but also concerns about the events in our country and world. Normal life stuff. 

I am thinking about that party with a very different lens today: the luxury of normal life stuff. A luxury to make memories with friends who make you smile and laugh.  Family who you love and who loves you back unconditionally. Birthday parties which become the polaroids in the scrapbook of your life story. Trips around the world that expose us to culture, food, new and exciting experiences. All things my cousin, Phil, has missed. 

On May 8th, 2004, all of those luxuries ended for Spc. Philip Brown, 21, and Spc. James Holmes, 28, both with the North Dakota National Guard 141st Engineer Combat Battalion based in Valley City after each was killed in action in Iraq in separate attacks 20 years ago today. Both unmarried, so young and with so much life yet to be lived. They were the first deaths in Iraq for the 141st Battalion and the entire state mourned their losses. I have written about my cousin Phil in this column before.  Perhaps it is therapeutic to have this forum to remind readers about his life. Please allow one additional entry on this poignant anniversary.  

Phil had an incredible zest for adventure, placed a high value on friendships, and prioritized inclusion of everyone. He was a devoted Catholic and had absolute love for all things sports, family, and Jamestown. To know Phil is to smile hugely because that is what he always did. He was the ringleader of the younger set of our cousin’s group – making sure everyone was included in what was happening. Phil was fun. Saying no was not part of his vocabulary. He was always ready for the competition, the prank, the dance. The bigger the party, the more laughs to be had. The kid even invited his mom to his entire 21st birthday party and loved having her there!  

Phil loved Jamestown and the ballpark. He should because he grew up there as a concession stand worker, bat boy, and professional ball shagger. He would often sit with our Grandpa Jack and pepper him with questions about Negro League games played there in the 1930’s or Elks Amateur games that his dad had played in. He was a statistics sponge when it came to baseball lore. Before he left for basic training, one of the ballpark regulars asked Phil what he was going to do when he came back and he responded without hesitation, “Come home to Jamestown to sell insurance with my dad for the rest of my life and play with the Elks.” I can still hear that answer like it was yesterday. It was classic Phil. 

It is also important to mention Phil’s patriotism, particularly at this highly charged time of partisan divide in our country. From a young age, Phil attended our hometown ceremonies honoring veterans service with our grandparents, like we all did. Many times, we were the youngest attendees at those events, but we knew why we were, and it became important to us, too. As he grew older, Phil often cleaned up gravesites of veterans at less-visited cemeteries in town and put flags on each of them every year.   

As wars in Ukraine, between Israel and Hamas, continued Russian aggression, and protests on college campuses across our country heighten and fuel divisiveness, hate speech, and disregard for opposing views as we head into an election, remembering the sacrifice of soldiers like Phil and James seems more important than ever. Instead, a renewed focus on those things which unite us like baseball and the upcoming Memorial Day holiday and spending time with family seems like much more of a value add into our lives. Their loss of life 20 years ago has given each of us the luxury to enjoy normal life stuff, especially when we disagree.  


Tessa Gould
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