JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Tara Brown can vividly remember the last time she spoke to her older brother, Spc. Philip “Phil” Brown, serving in Iraq in 2004 with the North Dakota National Guard’s 141st Engineer Combat Battalion.
Tara, then a freshman at the University of North Dakota, said she had talked to her brother on the phone from Iraq about an upcoming spring festival in Grand Forks she planned to attend.
“He was just telling me how I was underage and to stay out of trouble,” she said. “He made me promise him that I would stay out of trouble and to be smart about everything. I remember exactly where I was, and I’ll never forget the last time I talked to him. That was a week before he passed away.”
Phil was killed in action in Iraq at age 21 on May 8, 2004, 10 years ago today.
Tara’s younger brother, Greg, who was a sophomore at Jamestown High School in 2004, had a much different experience during his last conversation with Phil.
“I spoke with him on the phone about a week or two before he passed, saying he was coming home for leave, and when I hung up the phone, I just knew he wasn’t going to come back,” Greg said. “I just had a feeling … I thought he was going to get killed.”
The Browns, including parents Richard “RD” and Deidra, said when the news of Phil’s death spread through the community, the outpouring of support from the people of Jamestown was overwhelming.
“We felt enveloped in support from this community, and it was truly a bright spot in a very dark time,” Deidra said. “It is difficult to appropriately thank everyone for all they did and do, so in a way, that really shows our appreciation. Again, we say thank you for all the support we had then and continue to receive in unexpected ways.”
Hundreds of visitors stopped by the Browns’ house, helping answer phone calls, planting red, white and blue flowers, hanging up flags, bringing food and memorials “and just pitching in as needs came up,” Deidra said.
Phil’s funeral was held at St. James Basilica on May 15, 2004, and he was buried at Cavalry Cemetery. Hundreds of people faced the cold, wind-driven rain to line the streets along the funeral procession route to show their support for the fallen soldier and his family.
“When we left the church to go to the cemetery there were people lined up on both sides of the street all the way up, holding flags and saluting and waving,” Tara said. “I’ll never forget the way that it made me feel … I hope that the people of Jamestown are always reminded of that day and how everybody came together as a community.”
Brown’s last days
On May 6, 2004, Phil’s platoon had located and detonated an IED (improvised explosive device) on a regular daily mission.
“They were always proud when they could find an IED and end their mission safely,” Deidra said in an email.
The next day Phil became sick and went to the infirmary to be treated for dehydration. On May 8, Phil’s sergeant asked him if he was healthy enough to go on a secret mission.
“It was supposed to be his day off,” Deidra said. “Phil said he was OK, of course: Honor, duty, country.” The platoon was attacked at around 9:30 a.m. by an IED. Another soldier received superficial wounds, but Phil took the brunt of it, suffering severe injuries to both of his legs, his shoulder and his chest. Deidra said his fellow soldiers reported him saying, “They really got me.”
Phil’s legs had to be amputated about 13 inches below the knee, but after the surgery he began to experience problems with his blood-oxygen level, because his lungs were so traumatized by the blast they were struggling to properly oxygenate his blood. Following a blood transfusion from three of his fellow soldiers he was listed in critical but stable condition.
“That’s when we got our call,” Deidra said. “It was just before 7 (a.m.) when the phone rang. RD got it; I went to the shower. He came upstairs sobbing tears to tell me Phil’s legs were blown off from the knee down, he was in stable but critical condition, and we needed to start arrangements to get to Germany. We went numb.”
Deidra said they went to church to pray for Phil and began making plans on how to get to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, where Phil would be treated more extensively and hopefully recover.
Back in Iraq operations to get Phil out of the country were underway. When Phil’s blood-oxygen level was stabilized, he was loaded onto a Black Hawk helicopter, but during the flight he began to turn blue, which indicated internal bleeding. Later that evening around 7 p.m. Iraqi time, Phil’s platoon received a call that his blood-oxygen level had fallen below a critical level for a sustained period of time, and he had passed away.
Meanwhile in Jamestown, the Browns had returned from church and were beginning to pack their bags.
“We were a mess, but we were dealing with it,” Deidra said. “Then the Army came to the door, just shortly after we got home from Mass, with the horrible news. Our lives profoundly changed at that moment.”
Phil joined the National Guard shortly as a fourth-generation soldier after his graduation from Jamestown High School in 2001. His great-grandfather received the Silver Star in World War I, his grandfather served in occupied Berlin at the end of World War II, and his father joined the Army following the Vietnam War.
“Phil wanted to enlist as soon as he could; he was anxious to be a soldier,” Deidra said. “He wanted to serve just as other members of his family and some of his friends had done. Nothing was going to stop him from signing up.”
Growing up, he attended elementary school at St. John’s and was an altar boy for the basilica.
“After he passed away I learned so much more about my brother than I ever knew before,” Tara said. “He was a pretty funny guy. So many people came to tell us stories about his generosity and kindness.”
Phil played baseball, basketball and football for the JHS Blue Jays and was a DJ for several school dances when he was in high school and at Jamestown College (now the University of James-town), where a scholarship has been established in his name. Both of Phil’s parents and his grandmother graduated from JC, and Phil’s grandfather, Jack Brown — the namesake of the Jack Brown Stadium — served on the college’s board of directors.
After his service, Deidra said Phil planned to get a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield and work alongside his father.
“He wanted to live in Jamestown, as he loved this community,” Deidra said.
Phil’s body was returned to North Dakota on May, 13, 2004. He received a full escort by the North Dakota Highway Patrol from the airport in Bismarck to Jamestown, where the Jamestown Police Department and the Stutsman County Sheriff’s Office joined the escort upon arrival in Jamestown to the Eddy Funeral Home.
Charlie Kourajian, mayor of Jamestown in 2004, ordered all flags in the city to be flown at half-staff from Phil’s arrival in Jamestown until his funeral services were over. His funeral was attended by then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D, then-Gov. John Hoeven, who presented Phil’s parents with his North Dakota Legion of Merit Award, and the North Dakota National Guard adjutant general, Maj. Gen Michael Haugen, who presented the Browns with Phil’s Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
The funeral was held at St. James Basilica at 10 a.m. but people began arriving at 8 a.m. The church and its fellowship hall could only seat about 700 people, and attendees were getting turned away by 9 a.m. The services were broadcast to more than 500 people at the nearby Knights of Columbus Hall. The JPD had three extra officers on duty to help control traffic for the funeral.
Greg said his older brother would have deeply appreciated the support his family received during those days.
“He would have been like, ‘Wow, this is amazing; everybody is doing this for my family,’” Greg said. “If he saw you crying, he would pick you up. He wouldn’t want you to cry; he would want you to know he’s in a better place and not to cry but just move on, because life’s short and you only live once.”
Greg said he often fought with his brother, using either words or fists, but he could always turn to him if he needed someone to talk to. Losing him “was hard, it was really hard,” he said.
“At first I didn’t realize that it happened,” Greg said. “I literally couldn’t cry because I was just in shock. I pretty much had to force myself to cry to show emotion, but it’s almost been 10 years, and it still hasn’t really hit me. It’s still a shock to me and like I said, it’s been 10 years.”
Greg said he hopes communities will continue to show support for the families of soldiers overseas.
“Just show your support, anything you could possibly do, whether it’s donate money or go over to their house and mow their lawn or just go to church with them,” he said. “Even if it’s not in Jamestown, if it’s in Bismarck or Fargo, they’re out there. North Dakota is a big community.”