His tough hard-nosed visage with the shaved head and businesslike manner served him well in his 30-year military career. Retired Col. Tom Brown was a field artilleryman.
He served 15 months in Vietnam, from March 1967 until June 1968. He was a 25-year-old captain when he arrived in Bien Hoa as the battalion intelligence officer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 319th Field Artillery. Subsequent assignments in Vietnam included liaison officer with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, and then the brigade fire support officer and as a battalion operations officer. Brown also flew as a passenger, an air observer, on more than 350 combat missions.
The Ohio native saw the death from combat. But what most impacts him emotionally, even today, is the memory of seeing wounded paratroopers trying to salute an officer while receiving the Purple Heart in a medical treatment facility.
“That’s tough,” Brown said of the emotional impact.
He was born in Hamilton, Ohio, and joined the National Guard when he was 16. He went to Ohio State in 1956 and entered ROTC. After his father died in 1960, he transferred to the University of Cincinnati where he received his commission in 1962 and graduated with a bachelor’s in finance and economics.
The second lieutenant in artillery went on to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and ended up in Germany with the 3rd Armored Division. After nearly four years in Hanau, Germany, he returned to the states for advanced artillery school and then left for Vietnam.
“I think Vietnam was one of the positive experiences of my life,” Brown said. “All the values I was raised with – all the values of being an American – were played out by the people I was working with. On balance the American Soldier was an awesome person and I got to serve with him.”
But like many service members returning from the Vietnam War, he saw protests from an unappreciative segment of the American population. In one instance, he was going out to dinner in San Francisco when “beatniks” expressed their displeasure about the war and the military.
Brown, who chose to ignore the protesters back then, appreciates this nation’s ongoing commemoration of 50 years since Vietnam.
“I think the recent efforts have caused us to understand the context in which the war was fought and the commitment of the people who fought it,” he said, “as opposed to the political, psychological attitudes 50 years ago. I think we’ve walked away from all the crap I saw that day in San Francisco when I was going to dinner.”
After Vietnam he returned to Fort Sill where he taught intelligence operations and counterinsurgency. In 1984 he arrived in Huntsville with the then Ballistic Missile Defense Command, a predecessor of the Space and Missile Defense Command. He served with the Pershing Project Office from 1986-90 and he was the executive agent for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces or INF Treaty, a pivotal 1987 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was the last of the Pershing project managers in 1992 for about six months. Brown retired in 1992 as the director of weapon systems for the then Missile Command.
He owns a company called American Defense Management, a defense contractor. Brown, 76, serves in the community as living historian with the First Patriot Support Group. He owns 300 military uniforms. He also volunteers as a chaplain with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.
Brown and his wife of 50 years, Pat, have two sons, Mark, 45, an emergency medical technician, and Richard, 42, a Madison County deputy sheriff, five grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.
“I have no bad memories of anything about Vietnam in so far as the war,” he said.
Editor’s note: This is the 24th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.