WARRENSBURG, Mo. On every drive here, the heart teases Norma Brown.
She misses the handsome farm boy she married in 1964. Maybe this will be the day he finally greets her with a smile and a wave.
A girl can dream, can’t she?
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But like most mornings when she walks into the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg, she finds him reclined in a wheelchair, his eyes toward a TV. Norma knows it might just as well be off.
Ray Brown, 72, of Pleasant Hill, doesn’t speak, walk, use his hands; he doesn’t do much of anything except waste away.
He did talk for awhile after the strokes in 2011, some words coming in his sleep about things Norma never knew about. Once he cried, “I didn’t know there were children inside.”
For more than 40 years, Ray kept his memories of war stowed away like jars of Vietnam dirt.
He kept quiet for her, Norma knows. She wishes now he had not been so noble.
Because this is Norma’s time to fight. And she could use all the stories he kept from her.
She wants to keep him in the Warrensburg facility, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has denied benefits and she’s running out of money. According to a VA spokesperson, the Browns haven’t provided enough information about Ray’s service.
Such as how Ray was wounded when he earned a Purple Heart. What happened over there so awful that he kept quiet all these years?
“But he didn’t tell me and now he can’t tell them,” Norma says.
Military records show that Clinton Ray Brown, born Feb. 27, 1945, in Sheldon, Mo., was a sergeant in the Army’s 6th Infantry during the Vietnam War. He was awarded a Purple Heart and several other medals for his year in-country from 1968-69.
Norma has been told by veteran advocates that Ray should be getting benefits. One said her case was a “slam dunk.”
Purple Heart. Post-traumatic stress disorder. He got Dengue fever and had to be packed in ice. Norma wonders if that could have cause her husband’s vascular dementia.
VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay says Ray could likely be eligible for benefits and someday the request may be approved. But for now, “further information is required” — and Norma doesn’t have it.
Military records provide a lot of details, but causes for PTSD can be harder to come by.
“I know she is trying her best with what she knows,” Mojay says from Washington, D.C. “If she just had more information, that would go a long way.”
But when Ray came home from war, he got on with his life, raised a family, worked at Hallmark Cards, refereed high school sports and listened to country music.
“I thought he was unscathed, but I guess he just swallowed it down,” Norma says.
After the stroke, Ray told a psychiatrist: “There’s nothing I can say that you want to hear. I’ve seen things humans should never see.”
During a benefits interview with VA officials, Ray was unable to describe what happened to him in Vietnam. He soon went quiet. Twice since 2014, requests for VA benefits have been denied. An appeal is pending.
Norma’s story is a lesson for anyone in her position: Go digging.
Ron Cherry, service officer at the National VFW in Kansas City, says a case such as the Browns’ comes down to whether the veteran’s disability is a result of military service. Are Ray’s stroke, dementia or PTSD lingering effects of his action in Vietnam?
Because Norma doesn’t know what happened over there, she must find information to make an argument regarding combat and injuries from hostile fire.
“The VA won’t get that for her,” Cherry says. “She will have to get it. The VA is like an insurance company — if you don’t make a claim, you don’t get paid.”
Meanwhile, Norma is rolling through their retirement nest egg to keep Ray in a place that can care for him. That tab is already well over $100,000, and she’s paying $2,000 each month to keep him in the Warrensburg facility, where he’s been nearly three years.
She is not bitter at the VA.
“I don’t begrudge anything I’ve had to pay and I don’t want anything he’s not entitled to,” she says. “But what do I do when the money’s gone? Bring him home?”
High school sweethearts
Norma typically finds Ray in a TV room with several other vets. Nearly everyone wears a service cap: Army, Navy, Marines, World War II, Korea, Vietnam.
She leans in to him, “Hey, how you doin’?”
He doesn’t acknowledge.
“Can you smile?” she pleads.
He used to smile. At grandchildren, mostly. Norma doesn’t know if he recognized them or if he smiled because they were kids.
“It breaks their heart for them to see Grampa like this,” she says, then adds: “I wish I knew what he was thinking, or even if he is. Nothing seems to give him joy.”
She and Ray grew up in Vernon County in south Missouri. He was a farm boy. She was a big city girl from Nevada. They met in high school and have been together ever since.
They married in 1964. Two years later, Ray got drafted and was soon headed to Vietnam. Other than stories about leeches and monsoons, he didn’t tell her much about that year.
She watched the news. She knew he was in the Central Highlands where some of the fiercest battles were fought. She knew about napalm and Agent Orange and, like all Americans, she saw the flag-draped coffins come home.
Then Ray’s year was up.
“He told me he would come back and he did,” Norma says. “He was 23 and we went on with our lives.”
They worked and raised two sons. In 2004, Ray retired from Hallmark where he worked at the distribution center in Liberty. Norma thought he quit too early, but now she’s glad he had those years. They had planned a trip to Vietnam, but never made it.
Ray suffered a stroke in February 2011. It was a nice day. He said his thumb was numb.
“Within minutes, his face was sagging,” she remembered. “Our lives were never the same.”
That was the beginning of the outbursts in the night. Norma thinks the stroke set free the PTSD. He had always been social, almost annoyingly so, Norma says with a chuckle. No matter where they went he made a friend. “The big tease,” she called him.
Then, he was none of that.
“I didn’t know what I had until I didn’t,” she says.
‘He’s the other half of me’
Norma kept Ray home with her as long as she could before putting him in a facility. Now she drives two or three times a week from Pleasant Hill to see him.
She doesn’t know how long she can afford to keep him in Warrensburg.
“He was proud of his service,” she says. “He went to fight. He didn’t burn a flag, he didn’t go to Canada. He never liked hearing that men died for nothing over there.”
Ken McCauley, a Vietnam veteran who has helped families, including the Browns, navigate the VA bureaucracy, has no doubt Ray should get benefits.
“They don’t make it easy,” McCauley says. “I tell these people they have to go after it because there’s nobody going to do this for you.”
As part of the appeal process, Norma will sit for a video interview. Mojay, the VA spokeswoman and a veteran herself, says the appeal allows for new evidence.
The problem is that the process takes so long.
“I’m watching my dad, my hero, die and my mom go broke,” says Aaron Brown, the couple’s son. “They did everything they were supposed to do. Served their country, worked hard and now this is what they get?”
Norma says she’s wearing down, but doesn’t have a Plan B. Still, she will never give up fighting for the farm boy she fell in love with all those years ago.
“He’s the other half of me,” she says.
She says, too, he probably won’t last long.
“I don’t wish him dead,” she says. “But he’s not living.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182