Solider, student earns Purple Heart

Chris Brown searches a field for small grenades, called caches, buried underground. Brown lit the field on fire to look for the bombs but none were found that day. / Submitted photo

At age 20, Purple Heart recipient Christopher Brown knew what fear was. He recalled the night he knew he was going to die, serving as a soldier in Iraq.

It was pitch black outside when Brown’s platoon embarked on what they thought would be a typical eight-hour patrol mission in Hawr Rajeb. Brown was manning the gun on a Humvee, with one headphone in and one headphone out, as he typically did on such patrols. An hour before the mission ended, a helicopter flew by and was shot down. The Delta Company was called into action, and Brown soon found himself facing enemy fire from all sides.

Due to a faulty gun, Brown was only able to get one shot off at a time. His first shot gave away their position, and Brown said he was left standing like a deer in headlights.

The original estimate of seven enemy dismounts had quickly turned to 20, and he remembered bullets coming from everywhere.

“I could feel the heat as they whizzed by, and I knew one of them was going to hit me,” he said.

Brown was quickly handed a M249 machine gun and gained the ability to shoot 200 bullets in 40 seconds. His strategy was simple: stand up and fire, then duck down behind a metal plate on the vehicle. However, large arm guards caused the soldier to get stuck the last time he was trying to pop down, leaving his head and neck exposed to enemy fire.

A bullet found its path to his cheek, just below the eye, before “Brown Sugar” was pulled down into the vehicle by a fellow soldier, who was relieved to find his friend alive.

“It hurt really bad,” Brown said. “But I was more mad that they shot me in my face than the fact that they shot me at all.”

In spite of the fact that he had just been injured, Brown rushed to the aid of his friend Adam Moore, who had been shot multiple times in the back.

“My legs stopped working because I was shot in the spine,” Moore said. “I remember lying on the ground, and everyone else around me had kind of left. Brown came running in from nowhere and calmed the whole situation down that night.”

Moore said he would trust his life to about three people in the world, and Chris Brown is one of them.

“When they told me what I was doing, after I’d just been shot, running around, bandaging people up, calling things in, I realized adrenaline is killer,” Brown said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the way I was brought up to take responsibility for everything.”

Brown said he had long been in the practice of putting himself on the back burner. With the names of 11 brothers and sisters tattooed on one arm, and the names of all of the men in his platoon tattooed on the other, one can see where Brown’s priorities lay.

Coming from a single-parent family out of Massachusetts, Brown gave more than $20,000 to his mother during his army career to support his siblings. He said the soldiers in his platoon were his family as well, and their unparalleled bond remains intact today.

“Brown’s one of the few people I would count on in this world to do stuff, from what we went through together in Iraq,” said former Sgt. John Gross, known by his men as “Uncle” John. “I could call him and he’d be there in a minute. We keep in touch regularly.”

Eleven days after the incident where Brown was shot, an improvised explosive device blew up his truck, and he was thrown onto his face and knocked unconscious. Brown later received the Purple Heart for combat wounds, along with two Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals and a National Defense Service Medal, as well as others.

After six years of service in the Army and two deployments, to Korea and Iraq, awards and honors were not all Brown returned to the United States with.

“I had frequent nightmares about when I got shot,” Brown said. “And my trigger finger moved in my sleep. I was drinking a gallon of alcohol every two days, because I thought it helped me focus more.”

Brown had married a girl he had developed a relationship with in Iraq, and they were divorced shortly after returning home. He then moved south to Alabama and began attending classes at the University and working at the Tuscaloosa VA Center.

“The Purple Heart is really what got me into school, because I never cared about my grades in high school,” Brown said.

He is almost a junior by credit hours, but he said this has been his worst semester at the University. Brown said he has seen and done so many things that he believes his outlook on life is completely different from many college students.

“I’m 25 now, but people frequently tell me I should be 30,” he said. “There is more to life than drinking, partying and seeing how many people you can have sex with. Life is short. I’ve seen it firsthand. Someone can be standing beside you, and the next minute they’re gone.”

Brown said the worst part of experiencing death as a soldier is hearing the gaps in roll call.

“Imagine your best friend just died,” he said. “The way they find out she’s missing is when she doesn’t respond when they read out her name and rank. They repeat it twice using her full name. When she doesn’t respond again, they fire the 21 Gun Salute. It’s hard because it makes it so real.”

Brown has experienced all of the gruesome horrors of war.

He has carried body parts in his hands to send off for DNA testing. He has lost his friends in combat. He has found footage of Saddam Hussein pushing people off of buildings. He has slept standing up. He has bundled up next to other guys just to keep warm. He has killed terrorists. He has seen places that make America’s worst ghettos look like castles.

However, through all of the blood, bombs and bullets, Brown persevered.

“He’s very energetic and loyal and was an expert with his weapon systems,” Ariel Roca, who served two years with Brown, said. “We always felt safe knowing he was around. He brought a lot of charisma to our platoon, rather it was through his faith or just joking around.”

Brown said he often liked to relieve the stress of war by “fighting” other members of the platoon. He said he was always jumping on somebody in fun to pass the time. This method of entertainment quickly caught on, and Brown said you never knew when you would be “attacked.”

“I think what made our platoon so successful was that we were so diverse,” Brown said.

The 16 members came from a variety of states, including Mississippi, Texas, Vermont, Nebraska, Florida and Maine, and they formed the bond of a lifetime. He still remembers learning to do a proper headlock from Dustin Reddin, a cornbread-eating Oklahoma boy who can wrestle steers. He also learned the secret of cooking cabbage from Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Sweet.

“Sweet was that guy that kept us emotionally and mentally together,” Brown said. “Delta Company was the only one in our battalion that had no deaths.”

Brown said he wouldn’t trade his experiences in the Army for anything, but now he’s ready to relax for a while and have some fun. He will never take anything as costly as freedom for granted.

  • http://www.bama.ua.edu/~campusveterans/ William D. Suclupe

    Chris, thank you for your service! You have shown the true meaning of the words, “Loyalty and Selfless Service,” and that’s an understatement. As a fellow comrade, I am glad to have had a stand up guy like you have our backs on the battlefield. I know the transition to civilian/academic life is challenging, but pushing through this adversity is nothing compared to other challenges you’ve faced throughout your service in the Army. I challenge all UA students/faculty and staff to take a moment, reflect and truly appreciate the sacrifices that Veterans have given for all us. Please remember, that many of our nation’s heroes walk amongst us, sit in our classrooms, and interact with us every day here at the Capstone. President Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” UA let’s not just thank a veteran, let’s show our appreciation. Transition from the military to civilian life is never easy, and it takes an entire community to assist in the cause. Chris, if you ever need anything, you know where to find me and Happy Veterans Appreciation Week!

  • Deborah Johnston

    Chris, I was reading this article in the newspaper this morning in class. I normally don’t read the articles I just skip right to the puzzles in the back, but today I read the article about you. I just wanted to tell you thank you for all that you have done. I am so thankful for people like you and your team that put your lives on the line for me to live her scotch free. While I was in class and reading your article (not paying attention, lol) i was tearing up and so greatful for what you have done. I am glad that you servied and wished everyone could. My grandpa and step dad were in the Air Force. I am so thankful for all the men and women of our forces. I hope all goes well with school. Have a wonderful Veterans Day.
    Love, Deborah

  • http://www.cw.ua.edu Christopher Brown

    To the viewers of this story, First off thank you for all the love and respect that has been shown to me. I appreciate everything and take nothing for granted. However, I want you all to know that this is not something that I want to be hyped up about. Yes I have been through quite a few things and I’ve seen more things in this world than one can imagine but please understand that this was a job that I was chosen to do. I do not know why but it was the road that was placed before me. They’re are a lot of veterans that walk through campus on a daily basis. and all of us have seen things, It does not matter who has seen the most in combat or who sat behind a desk, the fact is we all did the job that we were chosen to do. Mine just happened to be on the front line and I regret none of it. Please understand that freedom is not free, it is built on the backs of the soldiers that risk their lives everyday to make sure you sleep well at night. I hope this has touched every one in a special way and that everyone sees life for more than what you think it may be. Like I said in the article, life is extremely short. Some people have 20 more years and some have 20 more minutes, you never know. Live everyday like it is your last and try to enjoy everything for what it is no matter what. Always remember that no matter how bad a situation is, someone out there is going through worse. Remember to love with everything you are and hope to be, take a chance when it is there and live everyday like it’s your last. If you want to talk to me e-mail me at cmbrown8@crimson and I will gladly answer any questions you may have. Take care and thank you all again