Leon and Loren “Dale” Brown have been watching out for each other since the day they were born.
The fraternal twins arrived March 5, 1948, in Topeka, Kansas. Dale, the older by 20 minutes, said, “Mother swore we were identical until the day she died.”
They grew up in a large family on the east side of Topeka − opportunities to better themselves were scarce, so in 1966, at age 18, they joined the U.S. Navy.
“We couldn’t afford college. We knew we’d eventually get drafted, so we signed up,” Dale said.
Leon shrugged. “We liked the uniforms and we wanted to see the world. We heard things about guys getting killed in Vietnam, but we thought that was just the Army.”
Their recruiter encouraged them to go to corpsmen school, tempting them with tales of air-conditioned hospitals and pretty nurses.
That sounded appealing, so off they went to Corpus Christi, Texas. While working in a hospital, treating wounded soldiers shipped home from Vietnam, they saw the grim realities of war.
“It didn’t prepare us for what we’d experience, but it gave us insight,” Leon said.
They were sent to fleet Marine school and then received combat medical training at Camp Pendleton. No jaunty white sailor hats for them. “We were no longer in the Navy − we were Marines,” said Dale, chuckling.
Throughout their training they managed to stay together, often having to sign additional paperwork, as the military generally frowns on placing brothers together.
“I wanted to go where he went,” Dale said, pointing at Leon.
Leon nodded. “We always watched out for each other − that wasn’t going to change.”
They were assigned to the 3rd battalion, 9th Marine regiment, Lima Company. Dale was a corpsman in the 1st platoon, Leon the 2nd. They were never far from each other.
On July 4, 1968, they landed in Vietnam.
Dale recalled, “The battalion surgeon told us, ‘We’re running 50 percent mortality on corpsmen. One of you is going to die.’ ”
But like most 18-year-olds, they thought they were invincible.
“We weren’t going to make it easy for them to make us part of that statistic,” Leon said.
Their first battle experience came at Con Thien, which means “hill of angels.” There was nothing heavenly about their experience.
“Eight corpsmen went out on that operation. Four came back,” Dale said.
The battalion surgeon hadn’t exaggerated the risks.
“We were fighting hard-core NVA (North Vietnamese ) army,” Leon said. “They were always looking to kill officers, radiomen and corpsmen.”
They quickly learned to disguise the Red Cross on their kits and blend in with the troops, but once the fighting started, corpsmen were hard to miss. They were the ones dodging bullets and running or crawling toward fallen soldiers.
“You’d hear them yell, ‘Corpsman up!’ ” recalled Dale. “Once you showed ’em what you could do, they called you Doc.”
Those shouts for help still haunt them. For all the men helped, for all the lives they saved, there were so many they couldn’t.
Leon recalled laughing and joking with a young Marine they called Animal. A short time later they came under fire and he heard the call, “Corpsmen up!”
“It was Animal,” Leon said.
As he tried to describe the wounds, he wept, covering his face with his hands.
“He died,” Leon said, wiping his tears with the back of his hand.
It’s an anguish his brother knows all too well.
“His name was Matthias. He was 17. Too damn young,” Dale said as he cleared his throat, describing his first casualty. “He got hit. He was eviscerated, bleeding so hard, I couldn’t clamp it, couldn’t stop it. He wanted his mama.”
Taking a deep breath, he continued. “That’s when you learn to lie. I said, ‘Hey buddy, you’re going to make it. Your mama’s here.’ And he died. So I tagged him and bagged him.”
There’s no time for grief during combat, the shouts of “Corpsman up!” kept coming.
And soon enough Dale himself was the one shouting for help.
They’d been sent into the mountains for a three-day search-and-destroy operation. That three-day operation turned into 23 days of hell.
“We were under fire immediately, as soon as we jumped off the helicopter,” Dale recalled. “They were waiting for us.”
While clearing supposedly abandoned bunkers, a mortar round went off and a piece of shrapnel pierced Dale’s flak jacket and lodged in his back. It was his turn to yell, “Corpsman up!”
The medic who responded? His brother, Leon, of course.
“I was glad to see him,” Dale said.
Leon was relieved that the shrapnel hadn’t done major damage. He got out what he could and bandaged up his brother.
“I had a piece of shrapnel in my back for years,” Dale said.
His brother grinned. “I left that in there so he’d have a hard time going through airport security.”
In July 1969, they flew out of Vietnam, but they took with them lasting souvenirs − nightmares, flashbacks and memories too heavy to bear.
They both married and eventually settled in the Spokane area. Leon worked for the Spokane Fire Department for 31 years, retiring as a deputy fire marshal; Dale retired after many years as a psych nurse at Eastern State Hospital.
But with retirement, the demons that their busy lives had held at bay descended with a vengeance.
“After retirement we both just drank,” said Dale.
The sound of helicopters bothers them. They can smell the stench of the jungle in their dreams. Fireworks make them flinch.
Both were finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dale sought help first, finding a support group at the Vets Center in Spokane Valley. He watched his brother founder, sinking deeper into the misery of PTSD, and he finally intervened and took him to Providence Sacred Heart.
That brief hospitalization may well have saved Leon’s life. He looked at Dale. “If it hadn’t been for him I might have hurt myself,” he said. “We’re still taking care of each other.”
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