Rhonda James-Brown may have lost her only son during the Iraq war, but she is still keeping faith

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 17, 2003

&uot;Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalms 30:5b).&uot; When Rhonda James-Brown gave birth to her only child at age 27, she called him her &uot;heaven baby.&uot;

&uot;He was my sun, moon and stars,&uot; James-Brown said sitting in her living room, surrounded by pictures of her family and friends, but of her son Henry most of all.

Pictures of him mugging for the camera on a family trip. Pictures of him graduating from Head Start and, later, from Natchez High. Pictures of him serving as a miniature groom in a wedding. Pictures, too, of him standing tall for the camera in his crisp Army uniform.

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Henry L. Brown was killed April 8 while on duty in Iraq. So those photos, along with letters, personal artifacts and memories, are all she has left of her son now.

But they aren’t all she has left to sustain her. Not by a long shot.

After long hours spent digging into her grief, she hit the bedrock of her faith in God &045;&045; and on that, she stands firm.

&uot;I’m fine,&uot; James-Brown said simply. &uot;I’ve got Christ.&uot;

She remembers when her son graduated high school. He either wanted to go on to college or join the Army and, as his father and grandfather did before him, he chose the latter.

&uot;He was my only child, and an only child is spoiled, you know,&uot; James-Brown said with a knowing look. &uot;He talked about how the military would make him a better man, husband, father, leader. He graduated from high school in May of 1999, and two weeks later he went into the military.&uot;

The training was difficult. He wrote to his mother that once, after he had carried a backpack packed full of heavy gear up a long series of steps during basic training, he asked, &uot;Lord, what have I gotten myself into?&uot;

It was a tough road for a gentle man.

&uot;When he was growing up, he was quiet, not into sports. There was that smile. And he knew how to treat his fellow man.&uot;

James-Brown remembers with a smile that she called him &uot;Cooter,&uot; while his nickname for her was &uot;Moosie.&uot;

&uot;He tried me sometimes, like most teenagers will,&uot; she said in a quiet voice. &uot;But he was a good son.&uot;

Yet despite his gentle nature, the military life suited Henry Brown, a transportation specialist who had reenlisted just before the Iraq war started. He believed in serving his country. He even talked of marrying a fellow member of the Armed Forces someday &045; and, when they retired from the military, of coming home, buying a house in the country and relaxing on its front porch with his wife by his side.

&uot;He said that if he would marry, he’d marry someone in the military, ‘because they’d understand me,’&uot; James-Brown said. And that prediction come true, with her son marrying a fellow soldier just weeks before he was killed.

James-Brown will say, even now, &uot;I’m proud that Henry made the good choice and chose to serve his country with honor and dignity.&uot;

But nothing could have prepared her for the early morning hours of April 8.

&uot;When the two men from the military came to my door, I was hoping they’d say he was wounded and that he was coming home, but they didn’t,&uot; she said. &uot;And I realized I would never get a chance to hold him or tell him I love him again.

&uot;I received news I never expected and didn’t want, but it did happen.&uot;

She couldn’t help but remember the last telephone conversation she had with her son, on March 29. She got a chance, then, to tell him she loved him. His response? &uot;I love you, too, Moosie.&uot;

In the days following the terrible news, James-Brown &045;&045; whose mother had just passed away six months earlier &045;&045; was surrounded by family, friends and even a host of strangers who rallied around her.

It seemed as if all of Natchez was crying along with James-Brown and her family when residents throughout the area filled the convention center for his funeral just a few days later. Both public officials and private citizens rallied to honor the soldier who had become a symbol of the cost of war. And people from throughout the country, from schoolchildren to those who had also lost soldiers, wrote and called to offer their sympathy.

Those include Rosie Brown of Jackson (no relation), whose son died in Iraq at nearly the same time as Henry Brown. In fact, James-Brown was set to meet Rosie Brown in person for the first time last Sunday.

&uot;I appreciate what the mayor has done, my hospital family, my church family, everyone,&uot; James-Brown said. &uot;It may not have been the best occasion, but it brought us together.&uot;

In the months following Henry Brown’s funeral, however, she has had time to explore her feelings on war, on her son’s death and on her faith.

&uot;As the months rolled by and I’ve had time to be by myself, I’ve had to face the things that attack the heart. I love my country, but I have to wonder&uot; about the necessity of war, James-Brown said.

She’ll be the first to tell you she doesn’t believe in war, &uot;because no one ever wins.&uot;

She feels for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, both those who died and those who were left behind.

But she also believes that terrorism is as old as the world and, along with sickness, slavery (&uot;a terrorism for us&uot; as black people, James-Brown said) and a host of other ills, is a fruit of man’s sinful choices, starting from Eden.

And as she reckons it, innocent people are being killed so we can be free, &uot;but we’re already free,&uot; she said.

&uot;We were made free when Christ died for us. And we as a country need to get back to our roots, which are in Christianity. It has to start with the self.&uot;

In the end, she said with a smile, &uot;It’s not about Henry and it’s not about President Bush. It’s about God.&uot;

It’s not that James-Brown does not cry and does not get angry &045; she’ll be the first to tell you she does. &uot;But I turn to God, and God gives me peace and joy. … It just flows in,&uot; she said. &uot;I want to make sure that above all, God gets the highest praise.&uot;

In fact, that’s the advice she has for others who have lost loved ones &045; those she still cries for, when she hears news of other soldiers killed in the line of duty.

&uot;Keep your faith in Christ, who has never done anything wrong. Cry, scream if you have to, but don’t lose your faith. Praise the Lord in your time of sorrow.

&uot;(Sorrow) may endure for a night,&uot; she said, quoting a favorite Bible verse, &uot;but joy comes in the morning.&uot;

Remember you’re not the first to lose someone, and you won’t be the last, she offered. And know that God can bring something good out of something bad.

What has God brought of Henry Brown’s death?

For one thing, James-Brown said, it has brought her Henry’s wife, JoDona, who still keeps in close contact with her mother-in-law. JoDona Brown’s picture, along with a silk rose arrangement and Henry’s picture, sits in a prominent place in James-Brown’s living room. And JoDona is set to visit James-Brown this Thanksgiving.

&uot;I may have lost a son,&uot; James-Brown said, &uot;but I’ve gained a daughter.&uot;

In addition, she’s still got close friends and her father, who is getting re-married at age 80. And she said she knows that one day she’ll see her son, who is with his grandmother right now.

What would James-Brown like to see God ultimately bring from Henry’s death? &uot;A better world, one where people love each other,&uot; James-Brown said. She saw that happening, at least for the moment, as people gathered to comfort her and to say goodbye to her son.

&uot;I appreciate what people have done for me &045;&045; past, present and future,&uot; she said. &uot;I don’t know what the future holds, but I know (God) is with me.